Automotive History Capsule: Chrysler’s 1958 Auto-Pilot -56 Years Before Tesla’s Autopilot

There’s been lots of debate about Tesla’s use of the term “autopilot” for its suite of advanced driver assistance features. Some have suggested that the term is misleading, as it drivers might assume the term automatically implies full autonomy, comparable to modern aviation autopilots, and lull themselves into a state of inattention that could be dangerous to themselves and others. Without going into a whole in-depth analysis of Tesla’s Autopilot, that’s clearly not how it is intended to be used in its current state of development, and updates have made that even harder to do. It will shut down if a driver shows signs of inattention.

Meanwhile, in 1958, Chrysler’s new Auto-Pilot was of course just a cruise control.

The term “autopilot” has been around a long time, and does not intrinsically imply full autonomy. Sperry offered the first aviation version back in 1912 by Sperry, a device that connected a  gyroscopic heading indicator and attitude indicator to hydraulically operated elevators and rudder. It simply reduced a pilot’s workload, but was hardly all-encompassing. Its features were expanded over the decades to encompass wider aspects of piloting, to near autonomy today. But flying is very different than driving, and the tasks and the processing demands are not really comparable.


The last reference I can find to Chrysler using the Auto-Pilot term is in the 1965 brochure. By then, the novelty had worn off, and cruise control had become another commodity.