If you think that self-driving cars are the result of the modern automobile era, then you’re a bit wrong. Because the idea of driverless cars came to life 50 years ago. On 11th September 1968, the famous tire company Continental revealed their Project E-car. It was an electronically operated Mercedes 250 that could reach 120 km/h on the Contidrom test track…with no one behind the wheel.

Over 400 magazines, newspapers, TV channels and radio stations reported this event. Around the Banked Turn with a Ghost Behind the Wheel, some headlines stated. It was quite a mesmerizing sight, and the purpose of it was to show that tires could be tested precisely with scientific methods and programmed conditions. That means that Continental engineers were really pushing the limits of technology back in the days.

This autonomous system was developed by companies Siemens and Westinghouse with the help of researchers from universities of Darmstadt and Munich. It was equipped with electromechanical steering, electromechanic throttle control and radio device for feedback information.

The biggest role in this project went to the inductive sensors placed on both front and rear bumpers. They measured the intensity of a magnetic field that was created through the transmission current. Or, to put it in a less scientific way: they placed a wire along the track. A man in the control room was sending the information to the car via the wire, and the car was receiving that information thanks to the two sensors on the front and rear bumpers.

A man in the control room

This futuristic phenomenon wowed quite a lot of people, and even a former Continental engineer Herbert Ulsamer stated that autonomous driving was something beyond imagination; it was possible in sci-fi movies, but it was a whole different story when making it real. The system was actually a solution to increase tire testing capacity, and the absence of the driver meant less inaccuracies in the tests.

However, this technique of testing tires brought a lot of skeptics, mostly the companies that were planning to use those tires on their cars. They believed that computers would show less accurate results and that humans in cars are a more reliable solution. So, the project was put to a halt in 1974.

The engineers behind this project back in 1968. From left to right: Klaus Weber, Hans-Juergen Meyer and Herbert Ulsamer

With this project, Continental wanted to show what was technically possible. But, what they didn’t realize was that they came up with the future of motoring, both in electric cars and autonomous cars.

And they are not giving up on this idea. Not only did they still have the same old Mercedes 250 as a test mule, they created another testing vehicle which is based on a VW Passat. They believe that their idea of self-driving test cars will finally be put in use in 2025. Unlike the last time, they don’t see this as a fun project, but as a serious goal.

Modern self-driving Passat and its predecessor

All photos are the courtesy of Continental AG

Published in Car Stories

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David Olsen-Fabian
2 years ago

Great article. Read about this vehicle years ago. Cutting edge for the time. Laughable today. We’ve come a long way. But I must say, I’d rather have this Benz over a Tesla(mandatory Tesla flame).

Álvaro Martínez
1 year ago

Great article! I loved the composition and its build, although you could have used justified paragraphs on the text editor. Even then this piece is certainly great considering what its displaying to the world.

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