From 1958 to 1962, illustrator and futurist Arthur Radebaugh thrilled newspaper readers with his weekly syndicated visions of the future, in a Sunday strip enticingly called Closer Than We Think! While Mr. Radebaugh tackled a wide variety of topics, covering everything from weather control to spaceflight, for the purposes of this article we will focus on his automotive prognostications, like the solar-powered car pictured above. Let’s take a look at some of his works, and see how accurate his predictions were, now that we are living in his future (click to enlarge any of the images).
The future was boundlessly optimistic in the late 50’s and early 60’s, with the promise of abundant and cheap atomic energy seemingly just around the corner. The atomic powered car pictured above seems just plausible enough, with the reactor tucked safely away in the far behind the passenger compartment, before you realize how ridiculous the whole idea actually is. What happens if you get rear-ended? Do I need a license from the NRC to operate it? Do we really want fissile material in the hands of every Tom, Dick, and Saddam?
As a fellow northerner (Mr. Radebaugh hailed from Michigan), I have a warm spot for this next concept. Who hasn’t dreamed of just melting the snow away with a flame thrower when shoveling their driveway? I know I have! A vehicle that shoots open flames out the front? Don’t see what could possibly go wrong there. At least Radebaugh grasped the immense thermodynamic challenge of this scenario, as witnessed by the long train of fuel tanks to feed this beast.
The dream of self-driving cars has been around for almost as long as the automobile itself, so of course Radebaugh took a stab at that as well. His vision is actually pretty consistent with most early views of autonomous vehicles (at least up until the 1980’s or so): Vehicles guided by navigation aids embedded in the road. I suspect that the way autonomous cars are actually implemented today (computerized vision, AI, laser-powered LIDAR and satellite-based positioning) would probably have seemed too far-fetched even for Radebaugh.
Arthur Radebaugh’s vision was certainly not lacking in ambition. Some of his ideas were B-I-G. Take, for example, this underwater glass-roofed freeway connecting Alaska and Siberia. Where exactly was all the vehicular demand for this arctic road, connecting the least populous regions of both countries, going to come from again? And just what is this shark (a warm water fish) doing in the Arctic? Still, I can’t deny the appeal of driving to Siberia with the top down.
While some of Arthur Radebaugh’s ideas were plausibly grounded, others seemed like they were barely one step removed from Mad Magazine, like the color changing car above.
The Mobile Gas station is an idea that looks patently ridiculous, at least as depicted above. But today there are at least a half-dozen companies and apps that offer on-demand mobile fueling, with cutesy names like Filld and Booster.
Here is another idea that is not too far off the mark. A family fleet of at least three vehicles seemed so outlandish in 1962 that Radebaugh figured you would have to share a single power source among all of them just to make it feasible. Of course many of today’s family fleets are this size or larger, including my own family’s fleet of five, each of which thankfully has its own independent source of power. Good thing too, because I really can’t see Mrs. Halter wheeling a powertrain from my car and installing it into hers every time she wants to go somewhere. Radebaugh also gets bonus points for predicting the rise of electric drivetrains.
Finally, no collection of future automobile tropes would be complete without a flying car, so of course Arthur Radebaugh tackled this one as well. At least his vision (which looks a lot like the Ford Nucleon) is somewhat realistic by being limited to floating just above the ground on a cushion of air, kind of like a hovercraft without the skirt.
Hovercraft already existed back in Radebaugh’s day, so this idea not as far-fetched (or futuristic) as some of his other visions. Hovercraft are not very effective without a skirt, so if the noise doesn’t scare poor Fido off, the jet-engine force blasting from the fans would certainly will blow him away. What I think Radebaugh was actually aiming for here was magnetic levitation, another futuristic technology that really was just around the corner, with the first working Maglev train being built in 1979.
Arthur Radebaugh died in 1974, before seeing much of the future he predicted come to pass. While he died in relative obscurity, his work is now being more appreciated and well-known as part of the “Retro Futurism” movement, which looks back at past visions of the future, and of which I am a big fan. As near as I can tell, his works have never been republished, but many of his Sunday strips are available online by Googling his name.