It’s easy to think that driverless cars or Tesla’s lane-changing advances are inventions of the very recent past. But as Arizona State University historian Jameson Wetmore explains, people have been dreaming about self-driving cars for a very long time. “At every point in the past 50 years, someone mentioned that autonomous vehicles were just 20 years in our future,” said Wetmore. “That’s what they said in the ’60s, the ’80s, and the late ’90s. For the first time in history, driverless cars are not 20 years in the future—they’re much closer than that.”
There are two reasons why self-driving cars are inching closer to realization. For one, there’s the massive impetus provided by entities outside the car industry. Wetmore points to organizations like Google, which “didn’t necessarily have the background to be as terrified of autonomous vehicles as the traditional car industry.” In addition, consumer attitudes about cars also have changed in recent years, and the latest generations of teenagers aren’t as excited about driving as previous generations. A 2011 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute reported that less than a third of U.S. sixteen-year-olds have driver’s licenses.
At this point, it’s very likely that self-driving cars will become an important piece of the transportation puzzle, at least in population centers, but that leads to some new questions. For instance, how will we transition from human drivers to cars that drive themselves? How will human-piloted vehicles interact with driverless ones on our roadways? Wetmore thinks that driving will be around for a long time, just not in today’s form. “People still have horses today,” he points out. “You just have to drive to the stable and ride them. It might be the same with driver-operated cars.” The transition, therefore, could involve areas or roads devoted to each type of car.
Perhaps it all started as early as 1939, when General Motors’ Futurama display at the New York World’s Fair captured the public’s imagination with its possible vision of the world 20 years into the future. It was a world that incorporated self-driving cars, showing them operating on an automated highway system. In a country where winding country roads were clogged with cars, animals, and pedestrians, Futurama offered a vision of streamlined traffic flow, which happened when the interstate highway system came into existence less than 20 years after the fair.
The idea coalesced into something beyond fantasy—albeit not yet real—in 1971 when the U.K.’s Road Research Laboratory showed off a retrofitted car with auto-driving systems, the idea being to merge the features and convenience of highway driving with the safety of railway travel. In the YouTube clip embedded below, the narrator explains that the car is capable of steering itself using “computerized electronic impulses relayed to the car through a special receiving unit fixed to the front.”
Then in 1977, the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab in Japan created the first truly autonomous vehicle. The car was able to track white street markers and whiz around at 20 mph—quite a feat, considering how much slower commercial computers were than they are today.
In 1980, a Mercedes-Benz van was used for autonomous-driving tests by aerospace engineer Ernst Dickmanns. He and his team at the Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich, Germany, equipped the van with cameras, sensors, and computer equipment and took the van to 60 mph—on otherwise unused roads—using vision guidance. The same van was used to test three generations of guidance systems and was succeeded by modified Mercedes-Benz 500SEL test cars that eventually took an autonomous test drive through the streets of Paris in 1994. Dickmanns’ system put the brakes, accelerator, and steering on autopilot, with video cameras giving information about the road and other vehicles to an onboard computer. Today, Dickmanns is considered a pioneer of the kind of safety-assistance technology found on today’s vehicles.
In the 1990s, universities and research institutes began to focus seriously on creating cars that could drive themselves. No Hands across America was the name of an ambitious project completed in 1995, in which Carnegie Mellon University’s Navigation Laboratory, or Navlab, successfully took a modified 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport on a 3100-mile cross-country journey from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, of which 98.2 percent was autonomously controlled. The car wasn’t completely controlled by the computers, though: While it used autonomous technology to steer, a human driver operated the brakes and a hand throttle.
Things began to really pick up in the mid-2000s. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored long-distance competitions to foster better-performing autonomous vehicles. Only 15 vehicles competed in DARPA’s inaugural Grand Challenge in 2004, and not one came close to finishing the 150-mile winding desert course and claiming the $1 million prize. The following year, DARPA doubled the prize money, and Stanford beat the pack of 23 entrants with Stanley, an autonomous Volkswagen Touareg that completed the course in six hours, 54 minutes.
Then, in 2010, four electric vans successfully completed the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge—a 9900-mile, 100-day intercontinental test in which the vans traveled from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China. In 2013, the same lab successfully used driverless cars to navigate the streets of Parma, avoiding pedestrians and following street laws—no small feat, as city driving is far more complex than long-distance highway driving.
Meanwhile in the United States, Google had begun quietly developing self-driving cars. It started by modifying Toyota and Lexus vehicles with autonomous-driving hardware. By December 2014, it rolled out the first of its own fully autonomous cars. A growing fleet of these pod-shaped vehicles are undergoing real-world testing on the streets of Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Phoenix, Arizona. These prototypes have a top speed capped at 25 mph, and they drive defensively, known for their cautious behavior at intersections and adherence to the speed limit. The fleet has already self-driven more than 2 million miles.
Tesla made its Autopilot technology standard in all new Teslas in 2014. In October 2015, it added an over-the-air software update that gave Teslas the ability to self-navigate and to park themselves in a parallel-parking space. In Autopilot mode, the cars still require a driver to have a hand on the steering wheel, but the car uses a host of sensors—including front-facing radar, a camera with image-recognition capability, and 360-degree ultrasonic sonar—to navigate lane lines and detect other vehicles. But Autopilot mode isn’t infallible: In May 2016, a 40-year-old man died in Williston, Florida, when his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor-trailer that was turning left in front of him and the system didn’t detect the light-colored, high-riding truck against the bright sky. Tesla has since doubled down on the technology, rolling out an Enhanced Autopilot update in October 2016, and, for its part, the federal government has said the crash won’t slow its push for autonomous technology, which it believes may significantly reduce traffic fatalities.
The latest high-profile development in self-driving cars, starting in fall 2016, is ride-sharing company Uber’s autonomous-car test program in Pittsburgh, currently giving rides to commercial passengers in its fleet of modified Ford Fusion hybrids. There is still a human driver at the wheel (and an observer taking notes in the passenger seat), but the car is making most of the decisions.
As development of autonomous capabilities continues, parallel research in being done on vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication, which would allow autonomous and semi-autonomous cars to interact with one another and the world around them. For instance, cars would know when traffic signals are about to change, whether the road is closed or under construction ahead, and more. It will be some time before all of this becomes a reality, but it will be captivating to watch this future continue to blossom from a seed that was planted decades ago.