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Nebraska tested driverless car technology 60 years ago

Sixty years ago, a 1957 Chevy moved slowly down U.S. 77 near the Nebraska 2 intersection guided by wire coils buried in the highway.

It was the first real highway demonstration of a system its inventor and promoters believed would allow cars to be guided by signals from electronic wiring buried in the highway, rather than by human drivers.

Promoters hoped the Nebraska experiment would usher in an era of “electronic chauffeurs,” which would eliminate accidents caused by driver drowsiness or carelessness.

The experiment took place because of the persistence of one man, a state traffic engineer, Leland Hancock.

This was decades before Google and Tesla began experimenting with driverless cars, and long before Lincoln started pursuing its own driverless downtown shuttle service. It was the year the Nebraska Department of Roads and Irrigation dropped "irrigation" from its name.

For four years Hancock wrote letters. He convinced researchers with the Radio Corporation of America to cooperate. He got money and permission to lay coils at the intersection of U.S. 77 and Nebraska 2 as it was built. He located a car.

Hancock had the backing of his boss, State Engineer L.N. Ress. But Hancock, who became the unofficial electronic traffic control engineer for the state, did most of the work, based on several boxes of letters he donated to the Nebraska History Museum.

Hancock was inspired by a story in an August 1953 edition of Colliers, a national magazine, about research by Dr. Vladimir K. Zworykin, credited with perfecting the first television camera tube.

“I was greatly interested to read your recent article in Colliers concerning electronic automobile control. In connection with my work here, I have often theorized on the subject of automatic drive as it would pertain to traffic operations,” Hancock wrote in his first letter to Zworykin.

“If we had something tangible to work with, this department might be progressive enough to at least lay a few miles of actual roadway experimentally,” he wrote.

In September 1954 an initial test installation was made in Cass County, on U.S. 73-75, where coils in the highway were hooked up to a traffic counter and proved “more accurate than the present counters,” according to a Journal Star news story.

Two years later, coils were placed in the pavement as the state constructed the intersection of U.S. 77 and Nebraska 2, which was then on the outskirts of Lincoln.

Eighty-three people, including highway officials from across the nation and from the Bureau of Public Roads, plus reporters and other onlookers watched the Nebraska test on Oct. 10, 1957.

RCA engineers had installed a pair of small coils on the bumper and a small meter in the cab of the car.

A member of the RCA team drove the car with his windshield blacked out, holding a straight course by means of signals transmitted to his meter from a guide wire laid under the pavement, based on news stories.

When he got too close to the car ahead, a bell sounded and a light flashed on. When he dropped back the signals stopped. He held his course by observing the swinging needle of the meter.

The system was described as resembling the block signals and control systems used on railroads.

It demonstrated how vehicles might ultimately be controlled by radio signals from an electronic wiring system buried in the highway.

A system of flashing lights by the side of the road, which were set off when cars passed over the coils in the road, would also be able to warn drivers of approaching cars, providing safety in fog or poor visibility.

The system cost the state very little, about $500, mostly for the electrical wire and installation, based on newspaper stories.

Hancock and the researchers hoped the Nebraska test would create interest elsewhere and other states would cooperate in setting up a more comprehensive and widespread program.

That did not happen. And letters between researchers and Hancock indicate their frustration.

In a June 2, 1958, letter, RCA researcher L.E. Flory said “... definite action is being prevented by the rapidly expanding tangle of administrative troubles on the national scale that seem to be occurring.”

Hancock, described as the "spark plug" for this test project, worked for the state Department of Roads from January 1946 to December 1981. He died in 2006, but his donated papers — including carbon copies of every typed letter — tell the story of this early attempt to create a driverless car system.


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Prison contraband search turns up 'significant' drugs

A contraband search over four days at the Nebraska State Penitentiary turned up what the Department of Correctional Services is calling a significant amount of drugs, a cellphone and three weapons in a cell.

The search came after Director Scott Frakes called for an intense and organized look at several specific areas of the prisons, said spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith.

Searches have been stepped up in general since an inmate who died after being found unresponsive in his cell in late May tested positive at the hospital for methamphetamine and Ecstasy. Daelan Lamere, 22, died June 6 at Bryan West Campus in Lincoln.

In this search, 60 staff members searched all shop areas and all employees coming into the penitentiary on Aug. 29 through Sept. 1. During the area searches they found homemade weapons and prison-brewed alcohol, Smith said.

Smith would not say what drugs were found because a criminal investigation is being conducted, but she said the quantities were large enough to indicate they were not for one person, but would be sold to others.

"These types of searches allow us to identify potential and real security threats and identify them quickly," Smith said.

All windows and door frames were checked in housing units. The drugs that were recovered from the cell were found hidden inside the steel casing of a window, she said.

"Contraband in prison is dangerous and puts staff and inmates at risk," Frakes said.

The prisons' centralized intelligence team allows the staff to find and respond better to information about contraband and other security concerns, he said.

Frakes said the staff members involved in the searches did great work.

The department will continue to look at its security practices and enhance its policies and practices to keep drugs, alcohol and cellphones out of the prisons, Smith said.

"Large-scale staff searches are inconvenient but necessary," she said. "Staff members appreciate that we are looking for the contraband and working to stop it from coming in."

Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick has said the department opened criminal investigations on eight cases involving staff members and seven involving visitors in 2016. Through July of this year, it had opened no cases involving staff and four involving visitors.

Prison staff, when surveyed by Koebernick this summer, had their own suggestions on controlling contraband, including that the department use more drug dogs, search staff more often as they enter the prisons and increase prosecution or discipline for those caught bringing in illegal drugs or other contraband.