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This 'self-driving' 1956 concept car shows how far Tesla has advanced autonomous driving

A lot has been made about the race for the self-driving car, as Tesla, the Big Three automakers, Uber and other tech giants battle to be the first to perfect autonomous driving.

Ford is promising a "fully autonomous" commercial car within five years — even beer trucks are making shipments without a human behind the wheel, using technology not too unlike Tesla's "autopilot" feature.

Yet, as far as the technology has advanced over the years, the progress can start to underwhelm the longer it drags on — at least until you realize just how far the dream has come.

A perfect example to reflect back on is the ambitious Firebird II concept car, dreamed up and built by the futurists at General Motors in 1956.

Highlighted on the latest episode of CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," the gas turbine-powered car was the first automobile ever constructed out of titanium and offered a glimpse into what the future of driving might look like, complete with an automated driving system that was controlled by contacting an electronic strip on the highway beneath the car.

The 1956 GM Firebird II was the only car ever built with a titanium body. It was also built to drive autonomously on an electronic highway.
The 1956 GM Firebird II was the only car ever built with a titanium body. It was also built to drive autonomously on an electronic highway.

A GM promotional video featured at its 1956 traveling automotive Motorama showcase depicted how the car would enable a driver to take their hands off the wheel while the Firebird II seamlessly drove itself down the highway (leaving the passengers to enjoy the onboard orange juice dispenser.)

The sleek interior of the Firebird II featured a center console reminiscent of a spaceship.
The sleek interior of the Firebird II featured a center console reminiscent of a spaceship.

"This was the beginning of autonomous driving," comedian and car enthusiast Jay Leno said, adding how unsustainable the idea of having the equivalent of air traffic controllers monitoring the cars along the road was.

"I think the vision back in the day was to have these towers like every 20 miles."

Of course, the idea of an electronic highway and highway controllers in towers never took off, but six decades later, GM is being proven correct in predicting a feature that has now all but become expected of future models.

Jay Leno rides in his 2015 Tesla Model S as it autonomously changes lanes.
Jay Leno rides in his 2015 Tesla Model S as it autonomously changes lanes.

Last month, Tesla announced that every vehicle the company produces moving forward, including its more affordable Model 3, will come fully equipped with self-driving hardware. "It's basically a supercomputer in a car," Tesla CEO Elon Musk said.

CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT.