“History of the Self-Driving Car” is a slightly misleading title. That’s because we’re also going to be looking forward and examining where automated vehicles will be heading to.
Over 100 years ago, the most common way to get from A to B in the city was by carriage. As in, horse-drawn carriage. It was creating its own problems, not least because of the ‘pollution’ caused by horses. Notably, their dung, which was filling the streets.
This was a messy situation, but it was also a time when the first cars were entering consumer-level use. It wouldn’t be long before a man like Henry Ford came by and began mass producing cars. This changed everything. Soon, no one used horses for transport anymore. Instead, they took cars, buses, or trams.
But the singular issue was, when accidents occurred, they tended to be a lot worse than if two horses collided – which in itself was unlikely.
A new age dawns.
The idea that “carriages” would ever drive without the assistance of a horse once seemed far-fetched. But what wasn’t far-fetched, once they arrived on the scene, was the idea that cars would one day be automated. Even as far back as the 1920s, there have been experiments on making vehicles self-driving.
Initial efforts resulted in the 1926 Chandler, which was equipped with transmitting antennae. This allowed a second car following behind it to remotely control its driving. Still, this isn’t exactly a self-driving car if controlled by remote.
Throughout the 1930s, efforts were made, resulting in an exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair. There it was shown that an automated guided car, propelled via electromagnetic fields built into the road, could allow the vehicle some degree of self-driving. However, at this stage it was a purely theoretical idea.
But famous futurist and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes, envisioned that by 1960 self-driving would exist, and no one would actually drive anymore. From a safety point-of-view, this actually made a lot of sense.
Computers simply compute data then make the most logical decision based on that data. Humans, on the other hand, are prone to making mistakes, miscalculations, and being influenced by emotions.
The dream continues.
Considered one of the pioneers for artificial intelligence, John McCarthy developed his own vision for the self-driving car in 1969. His proposal suggested it was possible to create a car with a ‘television camera’ for its primary source of world-data input and would drive much like a human would – by ‘seeing’ the world around it and reacting to changing conditions as need be.
He also suggested that the vehicle would come with a keypad for inputting commands by the passenger. It would even contain a telephone. So that it could go off on its own without a passenger, such as when a person arrives at a location and there’s no parking available. The vehicle could be sent off to find parking (wherever) and then be ‘phoned’ to come back to the location its owner was in.
In 2002, the US Department of Defence was interested in self-driving troop carriers. They struggled to make any breakthroughs so instead they opened it up to the public. They hosted an event in the harsh Mojave Desert where people from around the world could compete with self-driving vehicles. They offered prize money of $1 000 000 for the first car to get past the finishing line. Everybody that had been experimenting in the area of AI and had some technical knowledge of cars came through. It was less than spectacular, unless you count almost complete disaster as spectacular.
Most vehicles didn’t get out of sight of the starting line before colliding into rocks, each other, or simply rolling.
The most successful entrant didn’t even complete eight miles of the 142 the course required before catching fire. And it took several hours just to almost make the eight miles.
Unexpected technologies boost the self-driving car.
Tech originally designed to assist drivers turned out to help make progress with self-driving cars faster. One aspect you’d imagine would be difficult for self-driving cars is parking. Yet from 2003, various car manufacturers started introducing parking assistance systems in their vehicles. We’re talking about the Toyota Prius Hybrid offering automatic parallel parking assistance… and if we all know one thing, parallel parking is a witch.
A very wicked one.
A new frontier.
But the real age of the self-driving car started with tech giant Google ”searching” for the answer (on Google?). They began a secret project under the direction of a former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Sebastian Thrun.
A few years later, and Google unveiled the truth: its self-driving cars had driven an astounding 300 000 miles and all without incident.
Soon, they demonstrated a prototype of a self-driving car that completely negated the ability to drive it: no pedals or steering wheel.
You don’t get to drive, ever.
Since then, many major car manufacturers have joined in, such as GM, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and others. Mostly these vehicles are semi-autonomous, thereby allowing a passenger to take over if required.
Where to from here?
It’s been speculated in various papers that autonomous vehicles are very much part of our near future.
This begs certain questions, such as: will it be ethical to drive a car rather than have a computer do it for you? You’d knowingly heighten the risk of an accident because a computer isn’t prone to human error. It won’t break speeding laws, it won’t skip red traffic lights, it won’t suddenly turn, and it would probably react faster to an incident than you possibly ever could.
If so, that might mean countries will start passing laws that only fully autonomous vehicles are allowed on the road… You wouldn’t be able to drive, even if you wanted to.
There are advantages to this. Such as for emergency situations. If an emergency vehicle was rushing towards a crash, it could send out a signal to other vehicles to move out the way and clear a path (and to stop at certain green traffic lights, and so on). It would do all this long before you’d even be aware that an emergency vehicle is coming your way.
That’s because with the dawn of the internet of things, cars from far afield would all be signalling each other, not just those in close proximity.
On the bright side, if you’re a die-hard believer in driving your own car, it would also mean no more long, tedious queues renewing your driver’s licence every five years. That’s one thing to be grateful for, right?