In retrospect, it’s impossible to take the “atomic car” seriously. Ford’s 1958 Nucleon concept lives today only as an emblem of a particular thread of American culture — one in which you could say optimism, founded and unfounded, was the overriding theme and animating force.
There were signs at the time that this project would never come to pass — the facts that the concept car was a scale model, that it was to be powered by a “power capsule,” that it would require a national network of nuclear filling stations where spent uranium rods would be swapped for fresh ones.
Ford itself never took this concept particularly seriously; it was conceived of, mostly, by a single new engineer, who was eventually shifted from concept cars to real cars, from real cars to car interiors, and who, after leaving Ford, founded an advertising firm.
The further you got from the auto industry, however, the more earnestly the concept was received. Eventually it became a flimsy sort of conventional wisdom, and it trickled down. Nuclear subs would beget nuclear planes would beget nuclear cars. Homes would be powered not just by nuclear power but by their own nuclear power. Infinite free energy would reshape, and calm, the entire world.
The atomic age was a gift to marketers. It provided a fresh vocabulary that allowed them invoke infinity without sounding immediately like frauds. It provided shorthand for power and potential, for technology and progress. Few companies would actually ever use atomic power, but fewer still could resist talking about it. If nuclear prowess was shorthand for America’s scientific and military superiority, the auto industry supplied the country with entrepreneurial self-esteem. They were a perfect match.
You could say the same thing about The Cloud, which is a real thing used by millions of people — like nuclear power! — but which has been gradually stripped of meaning, bit by bit, behind the doors of thousands of Marriott conference rooms, in millions of PowerPoint presentations.
You might also say the same of Google’s “Moonshot” programs, which range from Google Glass (realistic and real) to self-driving cars (realistic) to Andy Rubin’s human-replacing robot lab (classic futurism). Google’s “Captain of Moonshots,” it’s worth repeating again and again, is named Astro Teller.
You could certainly say the same of Amazon’s delivery drones, the concept for which sits at that perfect, explosive point between zeitgeist and reality.
And make no mistake: When tech companies show off far-future concepts, they are exploiting very present trends, for marketing, taking a page from the automotive industry playbook. The history of “moonshot” concept cars is less a series of earnest predictions than a list of car-adjacent trends. This Jalopnik post is fantastic. There are the GM jet cars of the ’50s; the Chrysler turbine car from 1963; the Oldsmobile “Aerotech” program, initiated the year after Top Gun came out; and the Toyota “Pod” internet car concept from 2001.
Both Apple and Microsoft used to be great at this. Apple’s catalog from the ’90s is an fascinating mixture of accurate predictions and strange trendspotting; Microsoft did a lot of this in the 2000s, culminating in a 2008 takeover of Disney’s “Innoventions Dream Home” in Tomorrowland, where visitors could play with mirror-sized touch screens, a kitchen table that recognizes ingredients you place on it, and a full-room Peter Pan light and sound show.
There were shades of Kinect in the home, and the Microsoft Surface was, technically, a real product. But it was a house of marketing, not a house of technology. Its most forceful prediction was that LCD picture frames were about to take off, an idea that, in 2008, owed less to science fiction than it did to its partner HP’s product lines.
Amazon and Google (and Apple and Facebook and Microsoft) are, as the auto industry was in the ’50s, America’s most powerful symbols of prosperity and economic leadership. They might not create the enormous amounts of labor that their predecessors did — the Amazon drone is actually an explicit threat to jobs — but their existence is nonetheless flattering to America, which makes their projections about the future extremely appealing. (Imagine if that drone video had been released by China’s Amazon, Alibaba. How might the media have reacted to that? Would 60 Minutes have cared? Would Charlie Rose have been quite so bowled over?)
Amazon and Google, unlike Apple and Microsoft, still have a great degree of mystery to spend, and they’re spending it wisely. Delivery drones may one day become a reality; for now, they are a prop to rebrand Amazon’s current, boring, important mission — to inhabit then replace modern retail shopping — instead promoting an image of forward-thinking, slightly scary, sci-fi wackiness. Google’s Moonshot program is somewhat serious about finding the next big thing. It’s most serious about distracting the public from Google’s more immediate goals, which are 1) to collect and distribute the world’s information and 2) to make money from advertising against it.
This is not a conspiracy, just marketing. And the Amazon drone does offer a coherent prediction, parts of which may well come true. But engaging with its announcement — to be hopeful for it or afraid of it, to joke about it or take it serious — isn’t engaging with the future, it’s engaging with an ad.
A sky darkened by delivery drones is Amazon’s Disney model home, an extrapolation not necessarily of what Amazon thinks will happen, but what Amazon knows people will talk about. It might not be a great prediction of the future, but one day, it will make a great footnote in a story about the past.