Lawn care takes commitment. Implements designed to reduce the time required to improve a lawn's appearance hit the commercial market during the mid-1800s. Push-powered lawn mowers in a variety of configurations from that era gave way to motorized models, with riding mowers gaining popularity in the 1950s. (For more on the evolution of lawn mowers, check out this expert set.) The American Marketing and Sales Company (AMSC) went one step further in the 1970s. AMSC’s autonomous Mowtron mower, the company proclaimed, “Mows While You Doze.”
AMSC released the futuristic mower, invented in 1969 by a man named Tyrous Ward, in Georgia in 1971. Its designers retained the familiar form of a riding mower, even incorporating a fiberglass “seat”—though no rider was needed. But Mowtron’s sleek, modern lines and atomic motif symbolized a new day in lawn care.
If the look of the mower promised a future with manicured lawns that required minimal human intervention, Mowtron’s underground guidance system delivered on that promise. Buried copper wire, laid in a predetermined pattern, operated as a closed electrical circuit when linked to an isolation transformer. This transistorized system directed the self-propelled, gasoline-powered mower, which, once started, could mow independently and then return to the garage.
AMSC understood that despite offering the ultimate in convenience, Mowtron would be a tough sell. To help convince skeptical consumers to adopt an unfamiliar technology, the company outfitted Mowtron with safety features, such as sensitized bumpers that stopped the mower when it touched an obstacle, and armed its sales force with explanatory material.
Mowtron’s market expanded from Georgia throughout the early 1970s. The Mowtron equipment and related materials in The Henry Ford’s collection belonged to Hubert Wenzel, who worked as a licensed Mowtron dealer as a side job. Wenzel had two Mowtron systems: he displayed one at lawn and garden shows and installed another as the family mower at his homes in New Jersey and Indiana. Wenzel’s daughter recalled cars stopping on the side of the road to watch whenever it was out mowing the lawn.
Display used by Mowtron dealer Hubert Wenzel. / THF623554, detail
Mowtron sales were never brisk—in fact, Hubert Wenzel never sold a mower—but company records show that the customers willing to try the new technology appreciated Mowtron’s styling, convenience, and potential cost savings. One owner compared her mower to a sleek Italian sports car. Another expressed pleasure at the ease of starting the mower before work and returning home to a fresh-cut yard. And one customer figured his savings in lawn care costs would pay for the machine in two years (Mowtron retailed at around $1,000 in 1974, including installation).
Despite its limited commercial success, the idea behind Mowtron had staying power. Today, manufacturers offer autonomous mowers in new configurations that offer the same promise: lawn care at the push of a button. (Discover one modern-day entrepreneur’s story on our YouTube channel.)
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture & the Environment at The Henry Ford. Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
In honor of National Engineers Week at The Henry Ford, our Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson led a panel (including Michigan Department of Transportation’s Michele R. Mueller, Kettering University’s Kip Darcy, and Arrow Electronics’ Grace Doepker) on the topic of autonomous vehicles. The panel wasn’t able to answer all of the questions asked, so we’ve collected our inquiries for the experts to weigh in on.
If you missed the panel, you can watch the presentation here.
Is the Comuta-Car a copy of The Dale? Matt: The Dale is a story unto itself. That car (like the company behind it) was considered a fraud, while the Comuta-Car was a much more successful effort to manufacture and market vehicles. The Dale was a three-wheeled car powered by a two-cylinder internal-combustion engine. The Comuta-Car had four wheels and a DC electric motor. The Dale was also considerably larger, measuring 190 inches long to the Comuta-Car's 95 inches. That said, both cars were aimed at economy-minded customers looking for fuel efficiency.
Is there a danger to the vehicle being hacked? Michele: There is a lot of work around security from all aspects (vehicle, infrastructure, supplier hardware, software, etc.) that put multiple layers of security in place to prevent that.
Kip: System security is a big deal - ensuring vehicle platforms are using the most sophisticated security is vital to building trust for owners and operators. Over-the-air updates is an important component to ensure the vehicle platform has the latest antivirus/security defenses. Like cell phones, the platform always needs to be secure.
What types of programs/coding is available to protect the confidentiality of the car to only be assigned to the driver? Michele: The industry has developed and continues to develop things such as personal recognition items (facial features, fingerprint, eye scan, etc.) that would allow this type of driver confidentiality. It has also brought to light concern over law enforcement and emergency responder access if needed in cases of having to impound a vehicle, if the vehicle is in a crash etc. MDOT has worked very diligently with Michigan State Police specifically to meet with industry professionals and talk through these challenges from that perspective and has aided the industry in their development of the technology. MDOT also works with other entities to provide training opportunities to Emergency responders for how to handle these types of vehicles as well as electric vehicles as they become more common on the infrastructure.
Kip: Quite likely that users and owners will give up a fair amount of confidentiality w/technology providers/OEMS when using fully connected vehicles. Like web browsing and mobile phone usage, it will be used to personalize the experience. Flip side - multiple users of a vehicle would have user accounts/profiles like current smart key/fob profiles on vehicles. If someone uses your fob, they may have access to your profile and user data.
How do these cars account for winter driving in states like Michigan? Michele: A lot of testing goes on with these vehicles in all weather conditions and many of the auto companies and Tier I suppliers have facilities in northern and Upper Peninsula of Michigan to do testing such as this in those conditions. They are run through many weather scenarios rigorously and this is a good use case for why we set up our pilot and deployments in this space as sustainable environments so that regardless of when the weather happens the environment is there to test with.
Kip: As Michele points out, Michigan is an amazing test environment: the combination of extreme weather and infrastructure challenges make for great testing to compliment all of the work done in California, Arizona, and Nevada.
How do you overcome the liability issue? If an individual is in a crash due to driver’s error, it’s their fault. If an individual is in a crash in an autonomous car, is the manufacture at fault? Michele: This is a very hot topic with a lot of lawyers, legal teams, insurance entities, etc., all part of the conversation. That determination is not out yet and I believe we have a bit to go before it is resolved. I do know that the reduction of crashes is drastically reduced by taking the human error factor out which automatically leads to a reduction in injuries and fatalities.
Kip: I see the convergence of two issues; driver liability and product liability. Currently need a licensed driver in a vehicle - fault pinned to the driver (however, MI is no-fault) Malfunctioning systems would be a product liability issue - such as a possible design or manufacturing defect. In a future w/L4/L5 fully automated vehicles w/o a licensed driver, the insurance regulations will need to change. NAIC National Auto Insurance Commissioners has resources on the topic.
When do you think autonomous vehicles will become widely used in our everyday life? Michele: I personally believe that a fully Level 5 automated vehicle being widely used with saturation is 15-20 years out. We have automated vehicles today with different feature sets and they are showing benefits. There will be a transition period and a mixed use for a quite a while yet.
Kip: Based on adoption studies done before the pandemic, I would concur: 2045 for 50% adoption rate for L4/L5. Important to remember the average fleet age in the US: 11- to 12-years old; a lot of old cars on the road.
You mentioned how highways impacted cities and Black communities. You could flip that question and ask about how autonomous vehicles will impact rural communities, especially in areas where cities are few and far between and infrastructure not as important. Is there an incentive to go automated in independent, rural America? Michele: The speculation is that you will see some sort of incentivization at some point to adapt the technology in your vehicle whether new or after market. This may come as the technology and infrastructure are more advanced and refined for implementation, nobody knows for sure what that will look like however, it is very feasible. MDOT has done testing with industry partners in rural areas and to be honest there are some differences but not many, we currently do a lot of testing and deployments in the denser areas just due to the location of the industry partners doing development and testing, the closer they are to those platforms the more testing, tweaks, retesting that can be done for a lower cost. In the decision-making process for infrastructure standards and specifications we are looking at the entire State of Michigan for setting those and as upgrades and projects are done all areas are putting in the infrastructure to be ready for the technology as the needs and demand spreads.
Additional Resources: Please check out the following links to learn more.
Michigan Department of Transportation – Michigan Department of Transportation is responsible for planning, designing, and operating streets, highways, bridges, transit systems, airports, railroads and ports. Find out more about lane closures, roads, construction, aeronautics, highways, road work and travel in Michigan.
MDOT: 2021 Engineering Week Webpage Michigan Department of Transportation – 2021 Engineering Week. 2021 Engineering Week. Engineers and technicians work together at MDOT to provide Michigan the highest-value transportation services for ensured safety, economic benefit, and improved quality of life.
Arrow Electronics: Five Years Out Arrow Electronics – Welcome to the tangible future. The people who live and work here know that new technologies, new materials, new ideas and new electronics will make life not only different, but better. Not just cheaper, but smarter. Not just easier, but more inspired. Five Years Out is a way of thinking to bridge the gap between what is possible and the practical technologies to make it happen. Automotive Security AV Development and Adoption
Kettering University: Kettering University is a private non-profit STEM university in Michigan. We offer undergraduate and master-level degree programs including fully online master’s degrees. In additional we offer graduate level certificate programs on campus and online.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle arrives at The Henry Ford.
Thanks to a generous gift from the University of Michigan (U-M), The Henry Ford recently acquired its second autonomous vehicle: a driverless shuttle used by U-M’s Mcity connected and automated vehicle research center. Readers may recall that we acquired our first AV in 2018 – a 2016 General Motors Self-Driving Test Vehicle. While the GM car was an experimental vehicle focused on technology, the Mcity shuttle took part in an intriguing project more focused on the psychology of consumer trust and acceptance of driverless vehicles.
From June 4, 2018, through December 13, 2019, Mcity, a public-private research partnership led by U-M, operated this driverless shuttle at U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor. The project’s purpose was to understand how passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers interacted with autonomous vehicles. In effect, the project was a way to gauge consumer acceptance of a decidedly unconventional new technology.
The shuttle donated to The Henry Ford is one of two fully-automated, electrically-powered, 11-seat shuttles Mcity operated on a fixed route around the research complex throughout the course of the study. The shuttles were built by French manufacturer Navya. In late 2016, Navya had delivered its first self-driving shuttle in North America to Mcity, where it was used to support research and to demonstrate automated vehicle technology. In June 2017, Mcity announced plans to launch a research project in the form of an on-campus shuttle service that would be open to the U-M community.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle operated on a one-mile loop around the North Campus Research Complex at speeds averaging about 10 miles per hour. The service ran Monday-Friday from 9 AM to 3 PM. While its route avoided heavy-traffic arteries, the shuttle nevertheless shared two-way public roadways with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. It operated in a variety of weather conditions, including winter cold and snow; but was not used in more extreme weather, such as heavy snow or rain.
The Mcity Driverless Shuttle on its route at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex. (Photo credit: University of Michigan)
While the shuttle and its technology are impressive enough, the impetus behind its use is arguably more important to The Henry Ford. The Mcity research project was the first driverless shuttle deployment in the United States that focused primarily on user behavior. Mcity’s goal was to learn more about how people reacted to AVs, rather than prove the technology. The two shuttles were equipped with exterior video recorders to capture reactions from people outside the shuttle, and interior video and audio recorders to capture reactions from passengers inside. On-board safety conductors, there to stop the shuttle in case of emergency, also observed rider behavior.
Mcity staff monitored ridership numbers and patterns throughout the project, and riders were encouraged to complete a survey about their experience that was developed by Mcity and the market research firm J.D. Power. Survey questions ranged from basic inquiries about age and relationship to the university, to more specific inquiries about reasons for riding, degree of satisfaction with the service, interest level in AV technology, and – most significantly – degree of trust in the shuttle and its driverless capabilities. The survey data was then analyzed by J.D. Power. You can learn more about the results through Mcity's white paper, "Mcity Driverless Shuttle: What We Learned About Consumer Acceptance of Automated Vehicles."
Along with the shuttle itself, U-M has kindly donated examples of the special signage installed by Mcity in support of the shuttle project. There are no current government regulations – at the federal, state, or local levels – for signage along a driverless vehicle route. Mcity developed its own signs to alert other road users to the shuttle’s presence. Samples include signs proclaiming “Shuttle Stop” and “Attention: Driverless Vehicle Route.”
Autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets – it’s no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.” Indeed, the Mcity shuttle project proves that AVs are, to an extent, already here. These driverless vehicles promise to be the most transformative development in ground transportation since the automobile itself. Self-driving capabilities will fundamentally change our relationship with the vehicle. The technology promises improved safety and economy in our cars and buses, greater capacity and efficiency on our roads, and enhanced mobility and quality of life for those unable to drive themselves. The Mcity Driverless Shuttle represents an important milestone on the road to autonomy, and it marks an important addition to The Henry Ford’s automotive collection.
Anyone who’s been following automotive news – or any news – over the past few years knows that autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction. They’re here today, right now. Sure, they may not be in every garage just yet, but in cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and even right here in Dearborn, they’re practically everyday sights as engineers put increasingly-refined prototypes through their paces on public roads.
Chrysler’s Portal concept car. The company that invented the minivan now reimagines it.
It’s that time of year again, when the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) brings the world’s largest automobile manufacturers to Detroit to tempt us with their upcoming models – and tease us with a few dreamy concepts. As usual, the show does not disappoint. Autonomous concept cars, compact crossovers and alternative fuels are all prominent at this year’s event.
Ford’s 2016 GT Le Mans winner, still covered in dust and glory.
Ford is rightfully proud of its big win in the GTE-Pro class at the 2016 Le Mans 24-hour race. Not surprisingly, the #68 GT piloted to victory by Sebastien Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller is front and center at the company’s booth. What is pleasantly surprising, though, is that the Blue Oval resisted the urge to clean up the car and instead is displaying it in all of its battle-scarred glory. The GT wears that dirt and grime like a badge of honor.
Ford’s autonomous Fusion Hybrid. The company promises a fully autonomous car for public use in 2021.
Ford has made headlines recently with its plan to reposition itself as a mobility company rather than a carmaker. Head to the back of the firm’s NAIAS space and you’ll see that it’s more than mere talk. There’s a Go Bike from Ford’s bicycle sharing program in San Francisco, and a mention of the Chariot ride-sharing service the company purchased there in 2016. The real highlight for me, though, was the autonomous Fusion Hybrid. Apart from a pair of LIDAR units mounted above the side-view mirrors, most of the car’s sensors are hidden in what could pass for a luggage rack. Ford promises a fully autonomous vehicle in ride-sharing service in 2021. It seems the car won’t look all that different from anything else on the road. (While those LIDAR units are fairly discreet, I’m holding out for the inevitable autonomous car with an infrared scanner.)
I always love the cutaways, like this V-6 from the all-wheel drive Cadillac CT6. Note the black driveshaft, running alongside the gearbox and bell housing, which sends power to the front wheels.
Chevrolet Bolt, the 2017 North American Car of the Year.
General Motors has its own reason to crow. The Chevrolet Bolt takes honors as 2017’s North American Car of the Year. Chevy promises 90 miles of range with a 30-minute charge, certainly impressive in the EV category. And the Bolt’s 0-60 m.p.h. time of 6.5 seconds may not be Tesla-type ludicrous, but it’s a full second faster than many of its gas-powered subcompact competitors. And speaking of unconventional fuels, the General’s GMC Terrain crossover gets an optional diesel engine for 2018. GM hasn’t always had the best of luck with diesels, but the fuel efficient 1.6-liter engine could make Terrain buyers happy at the pump.
Gustaf, the Volvo Spokesmoose. He’s there to promote the Swedish carmaker’s large animal detection system – and to provide a fun photo opportunity.
The 2018 Toyota Camry gets an aggressive look to match its aggressive sales.
Toyota always mounts an impressive display at NAIAS, and this year is no exception. The company’s big surprise is a robust facelift to its perennially best-selling Camry. The 2018 model gets an angular, aggressive front end wholly unexpected on a sedan that’s practically synonymous with, well, “practical.” They say you should never mess with success, but you don’t become the world’s largest automaker by taking blind risks. I’m sure the focus groups loved the redesign. Besides, it’ll look great at Daytona.
Volkswagen’s I.D. Buzz autonomous van. Think how many more mysteries Scooby and the gang could solve if Fred didn’t have to worry about driving.
Thanks to its diesel shenanigans, Volkswagen had a rough year, but you wouldn’t know it looking at the German manufacturer’s NAIAS booth. They’ve brought what might be the most eye-catching concept vehicle at Cobo Center. The I.D. Buzz is a cheery homage to the classic Microbus, but the hippies have gone high-tech. The Buzz is all-electric – and intended to be fully autonomous. As envisioned, the van gives owners the best of both worlds with a standard manual mode that can be switched over to automatic whenever the driver needs a break.
Presumably, the gas tank on this one is empty while it’s in Cobo Center – just like it was when Alexander Rossi coasted across the finish line in first place at last year’s Indianapolis 500.
Another notable race car, the 2006 Rust-eze Special. Sure to be a hit with the toddler set.
While I could have spent the whole day wandering through the main hall, I’m glad I saved some time for the lower level. From January 8-12, the space hosted “AutoMobili-D,”a dedicated exhibition focused on autonomous vehicle research, urban mobility, and a number of techy startup companies. Of particular note was the booth devoted to the University of Michigan’s Mcity autonomous vehicle test facility. That Ann Arbor track, together with the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, enables Michigan to hold its own against the tech titans of Silicon Valley, who threaten to take away the Great Lake State’s mantle of automobile R&D leadership.
The Henry Ford’s 2010 Edison2, on view in Campus Martius.
If your visit to NAIAS takes you through Campus Martius, you might take a moment to peek in the lobby of the One Campus Martius building. There you’ll find our own Edison2 concept car, winner of the 2010 Progressive Automotive X Prize. The gasoline-powered vehicle, which weighs all of 830 pounds, got more than 100 miles per gallon during the competition. What with all of the folks from around the globe in Detroit this week, we thought we might tempt them to visit us in Dearborn. What better break from the cars of today and tomorrow than a look at the innovative automobiles of yesterday?
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
I’m keenly interested in the move toward self-driving cars, so an article in USA Today caught my eye last week: “Self-driving cars? They’re (sort of) already here.” As the headline suggests – apart from the parenthetical hedge – the autonomous auto isn’t a far-off fantasy anymore. The odds are that some of us will be playing Michael Knight before the end of the decade.
While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the exciting things Google is doing with its fleet of autonomous Prii, just as earlier generations were wowed by Norman Bell Geddes vision of automatic cars in his Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair, it seems that self-driving cars aren’t going to arrive in a technological flash. Rather, they’ve been sneaking up on us bit by bit for a century.
One might trace their development all the way back to Charles Kettering’s electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac. Sure you had to flip the switch, but that car cranked itself. If not to 1912, then maybe you trace the self-driving car to 1940 and the practical Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission. Surely a car that shifts its own gears is a forerunner to a self-driver. And if not GM, then you might credit Chrysler and its “Auto pilot” feature introduced in 1958. Sure, the marketing folks who named it may have over-promised a bit, but that early cruise control system certainly was an essential step toward autonomy.
Much more sophisticated systems entered the market in the last decade or so. Lexus gave us “Dynamic Laser Cruise Control” with the 2000 LS 430. This device not only maintained a regular driving speed, it also automatically slowed or stopped the car in reaction to traffic ahead. (It also proved that fancy marketing names were still very much in style.) Adaptive cruise control, like the technologies before it, made its way from luxury marques to more modest models and is now a rather widely available option. The same is true of parking assist systems, in which the car can steer itself into a parking space. They first appeared in Lincoln and Lexus models, and then migrated to Ford and Toyota offerings.
“Active lane keeping” appears to be the big story for 2014. We’ve had passive systems, in which an alarm sounds if the driver weaves or drifts, for ten years, but “active” systems are just that – active. Infiniti’s Q50 will steer itself should the driver let go of the wheel while at speed, even through broad curves. The feature is a combination of camera and radar units that “read” the road and a “drive by wire” setup through which the front wheels are steered by motors wired to the steering wheel. (There’s no mechanical connection between the front wheels and the steering wheel.) Granted, it’s up to you to get the car on and off the freeway but, while there and with the cruise control and lane keeping engaged, the Q50 essentially drives itself.
Infiniti stresses that its active lane keeping is a driver assist system. It’s meant to ease the burden rather than take it all, but that’s no different than any of its technological predecessors. All of these devices seem destined to meld into a fully functional autonomous car some day, and that day might just be sooner than any of us think.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford