Eric Schmidt famously declared that it should be considered "a bug" that cars were invented before computers. He was talking about the ability of self-driving cars to remove driver error--the principal cause of traffic accidents--from the equation, but what if it actually happened that way?

Assume a world similar to our own, with human civilization in which, for whatever reason (divergent technological evolution, a gift from benevolent(?) aliens, magic, or whatever) the transistor is mass-producible before the internal combustion engine is. What would the effects on society be?

The first things that come to mind, but may require a bit of sanity checking:

When cars do get invented, the idea of replacing a horse-drawn carriage with a computer-drawn carriage would be fairly obvious, incentivizing AI research with a very specific, practical goal that never happened in our world.

Transistors also have other applications, such as solar panels. Without a strong motor vehicle industry applying political pressure, does the petroleum-as-energy concept ever become dominant without well over a century of a head start as it had here?

EDIT: Please note, this is not a "how would this happen?" question, but a "if this did somehow for whatever reason happen, what would the effects be?" question.

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    $\begingroup$ Computer before car would not be plausible. First electric car was build 1837 - before combustion engine. Car, and electricity from batteries, is much simpler technology than computers, requiring much less precise manufacturing. Without combustion engine, we could have steam-powered cars, or compressed-air powered cars. $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Jan 7 '15 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterMasiar: As I mentioned back when this was an answer, not a comment, I'm specifically asking about internal combustion engines, not alternative varieties of cars. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 7 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ About the only way you remove the invention of more efficient transportation first, is to remove the need for more efficient transportation. That would require a divergent evolution, such as wings, or a symbiote flying organism. $\endgroup$ – JohnP Jan 7 '15 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnP actually it is just the opposite. First cars and highways appeared, and then people "needed" to live 100 km away from work, and shop from a mall 25 kms away. A question of expectatives, if you assume that car transportation is not available you adapt your life to no car transportation. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jan 7 '15 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Re "...the idea of replacing a horse-drawn carriage with a computer-drawn carriage...": You've confused the motive power with the directive intelligence, but by accident have raised a good point, which is that horses are AT LEAST as intelligent as computer-driven cars, so we did effectively have 'self-driving' vehicles long before the horseless carriage came about. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 8 '15 at 6:27

A possible scenario is a world where internal combustion engines are mass producible before computers, but aren't used extensively because it's an energy-poor world. If they only had a fraction of our oil deposits, for example (say 10%?) that might be enough for civilization to develop, but at a much slower pace than ours. And cars wouldn't be used because they'd be hideously expensive to operate.

Now years after they've developed computers, they discover clean, relatively cheap nuclear power. So we have a scenario where computer technology is relatively mature but mass automated personal transportation has just become viable.

I would question why they'd want cars at that point though, since presumably they'd have to have efficient mass transportation to get that far.

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    $\begingroup$ There's a very simple reason why they'd want cars at that point: no matter how good your mass transportation is, it's still an impersonal mass transportation system, whereas a car is a personal vehicle. It provides not only transportation of yourself, but also transportation of a carload worth of goods, which mass transit sucks at. Imagine one of the most basic routine tasks of modern life: grocery shopping. Let's say you have a family of 4, and the closest supermarket is a mile away. Would you rather take the world's most awesome subway, or drive? $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 7 '15 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ They'd want cars (or some individual/small scale transport system) because there are many places that only one or a few people want to get to within a reasonably short period of time. In fact, obtaining an inexpensive/convenient energy source for cars would probably result in an automobile population explosion, just as it did in the early decades of the 20th century, when much 'mass transit' rail was replaced by newfangled automobiles, which gave the owners freedom to go when & where they wanted. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 '15 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Mason Wheeler: Or how you use mass transit to get to your rural home, mountain cabin, trailhead, beach... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ I'm still not sure this is realistic. Some form of energy source is going to be needed in order to have an industrial revolution, without which I don't see the infrastructure existing to mass produce something like a computer. That energy source could be used to produce biodiesel. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Jan 7 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ Re energy sources, Henry Ford designed the Model T to be able to run on ethanol, which farmers could produce themselves: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Model_T#Engine Unfortunately, Prohibition happened (among other things). $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 '15 at 23:16

It's tough to say without more information on the level of technology. Modern computers require ultra-high precision manufacturing processes, and on some deep knowledge of how materials work on nanometer scales. Lots of other advanced technology is required for producing the kind of computer that could drive a car, as well as extensive AI research.

Having all of this technology before the internal combustion engine would probably require alien intervention, since basic internal combustion engines are fairly simple and can run on wood. Having it all before developing a car would definitely require alien intervention, since the same technology that's used in a computer could be used to build an electric car.

Even having a computer does not necessarily mean having a computer that can be used to drive a car. Even today, our AI isn't capable of driving in traffic, and we've been researching machine intelligence for close to 70 years at this point. Being able to drive a car with computers is also reliant on having fairly advanced sensors for measuring the environment that the car is driving in. At the very least, advanced digital cameras would be needed. The effect on our society would depend on what all we had of the technology and understanding required for mass producing computers, and on why we got all of that before developing a car.

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    $\begingroup$ Computers have been capable of driving in traffic for a while, as long as the computer is in control of the environment. It's driving alongside manually-operated cars and around pedestrians that's hard. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jan 7 '15 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps, but unless roads are built which only cars are allowed on, the computer won't be in control of the environment. Even without other cars, there's going to be lots of pedestrians, carts, and horses on the road that cars are going to need to deal with. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Jan 7 '15 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ @ckersch: Such roads do exist. They're called rails (though it still hasn't stopped idiots from walking on them and being hit by a train). Roads don't make sense if you allow the automatic control system perfect control of the environment. Rails reduce lots of variables from the equation so that the control system would only need to handle distance to the car in front and behind and timing/negotiating arrivals at intersections. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jan 8 '15 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ @slebetman: Ah, I saw where you said Roads don't make sense if you allow the automatic control system perfect control of the environment and somehow missed that you were advocating replacing them with rails. My mistake. Seems to me, though, that the problem there is in dealing with intersections. When a car turns, it only needs to turn its wheels; when a train turns, you need to shift the track. Only a little, but imagine the maintenance nightmare of having to have a system with constant track-shifts to deal with hundreds of thousands of cars every day either turning or not-turning! $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 8 '15 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ Rails may reduce the need for driver input, but one of the main reasons that cars became so popular is that they can drive on roads, which predated cars by several millenia. Having computer controlled trains would eliminate the need for conductors, but I'm going to go get a car so I can drive on all of the horse roads, which are not controlled environments. $\endgroup$ – ckersch Jan 8 '15 at 15:37

At the dawn of the automobile era, the future was not very clear. There were many steam powered vehicles and electric vehicles on the road. Many people of the time thought the internal combustion engine was crude and inferior to other types of engines. The early engines were loud, inefficient, difficult to maintain, unreliable, etc.

The thing that drove the evolution of the internal combustion engine was the discovery of cheap and plentiful oil. A handful of people became very rich, and gained influence and power. They used their resources to build and oil based infrastructure such as gas/service stations. This was galvanized when Henry Ford used an internal combustion engine in his Model-T. Previously, automobiles were primarily hand-built and would cost a small fortune to purchase. The average family could not afford it. Also, at that time buying things on credit was relatively unheard of. Most people preferred to make purchases in cash. In many cases the credit option was not available. The Model-T was inexpensive, and changes in banking practices allowed people to purchase them using credit.

If, instead, all of those oil wells ended up being dry, and there wasn't plentiful oil, then the evolution of the automobile would be completely different.

There would be much fewer vehicles on the road, and mass transportation would be much better and available. Before automobiles became big, trains, and street cars dominated the landscape of most cities. These systems fell out of use after automobiles became widely used. All that remains of many of these systems are a few sections of track. If the automobile didn't replace these systems, then they would still probably exist today.

More people would live in cities. The use of the automobile made it possible to commute to jobs in cities without having to live there. This is what led to suburban sprawl. Many of the suburban areas that we have would not exist in this world, and it would most likely be wild or farmland.

There would be some people that owned automobiles, but it wouldn't be the norm. Public/mass transportation would be so good, that there would be very little need to own one. Since the transistor and the computer age came sooner, it would be logical that many more people would be able to telecommute to work, and there would be fewer people who would need to travel to perform their job.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting analysis, but I have to wonder about the "more people would live in cities" part. The first thing I think of along those lines is the opposite: without the option of mass commuting, mega-cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires would not arise, and more people would live in villages and small towns... $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 8 '15 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree that more people would live in cities. If telecommuting was a practical option (as it is for me today), more people would live in small towns or rural areas. Throughout history, there's been a fairly consistent pattern of people moving to cities, often unwillingly, because that's where the jobs were. The few who made good then purchased estates outside the cities. The railroads, and then the automobile, simply made it possible for more people to live some distance outside the city yet still keep the city job. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 8 '15 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Mason Wheeler: Would you please quit reading my mind :-) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 8 '15 at 19:17

Below is the early history of computers. Since you did not give a specific year, you only need to change the dates earlier by several decades.

Kindly also note that the most notable changes will be transistor technology during world war 1 and WW2. Communications, codes, early robotics, simulations on design will have profound effects on these wars.

http://www.daimler.com/dccom/0-5-1322446-1-1323352-1-0-0-1322455-0-0-135-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0.html The first stationary gasoline engine developed by Carl Benz was a one-cylinder two-stroke unit which ran for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1879.

So if you want transistors before 1879, WW1 and WW2 will be very very different, and this will be just the tip of the iceberg. You would also need to make the electronics era a few decades early.

History of computing

early components



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On December 23, William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen successfully tested this point-contact transistor, setting off the semiconductor revolution. Improved models of the transistor, developed at AT&T Bell Laboratories, supplanted vacuum tubes used on computers at the time.


At MIT, Jay Forrester installed magnetic core memory on the Whirlwind computer. Core memory made computers more reliable, faster, and easier to make. Such a system of storage remained popular until the development of semiconductors in the 1970s.


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A silicon-based junction transistor, perfected by Gordon Teal of Texas Instruments Inc., brought the price of this component down to $2.50. A Texas Instruments news release from May 10, 1954, read, "Electronic "brains" approaching the human brain in scope and reliability came much closer to reality today with the announcement by Texas Instruments Incorporated of the first commercial production of silicon transistors kernel-sized substitutes for vacuum tubes."

The company became a household name when the first transistor radio incorporated Teal´s invention. The radio, sold by Regency Electronics for $50, launched the world into a global village of instant news and pop music.


enter image description here

Jack Kilby created the first integrated circuit at Texas Instruments to prove that resistors and capacitors could exist on the same piece of semiconductor material. His circuit consisted of a sliver of germanium with five components linked by wires.


Jean Hoerni's Planar process, invented at Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp., protects transistor junctions with a layer of oxide. This improves reliability and, by allowing printing of conducting channels directly on the silicon surface, enabled Robert Noyce's invention of the monolithic integrated circuit.


Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. built the first standard metal oxide semiconductor product for data processing applications, an eight-bit arithmetic unit and accumulator. In a MOS chip, engineers treat the semiconductor material to produce either of two varieties of transistors, called n-type and p-type.

Using integrated circuits, Medtronics constructed the first internal pacemaker.

early networking



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AT&T designed its Dataphone, the first commercial modem, specifically for converting digital computer data to analog signals for transmission across its long distance network. Outside manufacturers incorporated Bell Laboratories´ digital data sets into commercial products. The development of equalization techniques and bandwidth-conserving modulation systems improved transmission efficiency in national and global systems.


Online transaction processing made its debut in IBM´s SABRE reservation system, set up for American Airlines.


Citizens and Southern National Bank in Valdosta, Ga., installed the country´s first automatic teller machine.

early robotics



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MIT´s Servomechanisms Laboratory demonstrated computer-assisted manufacturing. The school´s Automatically Programmed Tools project created a language, APT, used to instruct milling machine operations. At the demonstration, the machine produced an ashtray for each attendee.


enter image description here

UNIMATE, the first industrial robot, began work at General Motors. Obeying step-by-step commands stored on a magnetic drum, the 4,000-pound arm sequenced and stacked hot pieces of die-cast metal.

early simulations


A Stanford team led by Ed Feigenbaum created DENDRAL, the first expert system, or program designed to execute the accumulated expertise of specialists. DENDRAL applied a battery of "if-then" rules in chemistry and physics to identify the molecular structure of organic compounds.

So picture a world where you have these innovations available by WW2.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget that the theory of a silicon diode or transister was published decades before the metalergy and applied engineering was available to make one. As a jumping off point, what if, after early 20th century quantum theory got going and semiconductors were thought possible, a funded search was made for materials to exhibit that behavior? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 8 '15 at 15:20

Hmm... how about a way to keep the horse? Have the horse's strength and stanima amplified by fuel-burning engines, but still deciding where to go and not to run into things. The breed of pilot horse would become a small pony, in time.

So why are horses better drivers then people? Other than the lower speed involved, for purposes of the story they may be bread to handle high speed with great vigelence, in step with the engine technology.

  • $\begingroup$ One obvious thing that comes to mind: A trained horse can get you home safely when you're drunk... $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jan 8 '15 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ It's not necessarily that horses are 'better' than people, just as computers are not better than people (at least those who are sober, awake, paying attention, etc). It's that the horse or computer can 'drive' while you do other things. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 8 '15 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler xkcd.com/1720 $\endgroup$ – Jaime Gallego Dec 6 '16 at 17:10

Given a wheeled wagon, inventing a car is straightforward provided even basic industrial level.

Car may be based not only on combustion engine, but also on steam power, electricity or anything else. Once a civilization discovers energetics, not to say electrical motor, building a car is straightforward.

If there are sources to power electrical computers, then means to make a wagon to more are very obvious.


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