Driverless cars and taxis have been improving the lives of millions in the pages of science fiction since 1935. Joined by GM’s automated highway plans in its seminal 1939 Futurama ride, the basic driverless dream has changed little in the ensuing decades. Besides reducing accidents and congestion, such cars might liberate city centers by eliminating the need for most parking.
Of course, in the pre-computer days of the 1930s, giving cars meaningful smarts was literally the stuff of science fiction. But there might be other ways….
Much of the danger of early motoring was not the cars but the era’s narrow, ill-marked roads, designed mostly for local travel. Railroads were still the superhighways. By the 1920s, a few began to dream of transforming roads into something more like a modern freeway system, where controlled access would simultaneously raise speeds and reduce accidents.
80 years on the two basic ideas – smart cars, and/or smart roads – have changed little. Prime goals remain safety, speed, access, more cars sharing the road, intelligent intersections, and reducing congestion.
By the 1960s, enthusiasts of artificial intelligence (AI) on computers began dreaming of cars smart enough to navigate ordinary streets on their own. The challenges were daunting – essentially to reverse-engineer the relevant systems in a moving animal like a cockroach:
- Processing (modeling the outside world, making decisions)
- Reacting, with appropriate movement
The first and last steps were feasible with known technology. The unknown part was the processing, the machine intelligence needed in between.
In the 1980s, German pioneer Ernst Dickmanns got a Mercedes van to drive hundreds of highway miles autonomously, a tremendous feat especially with the computing power of the time. Around the world, dozens of other pioneers added their own improvements.
In 2004, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) challenged dozens of teams then working on autonomous vehicles to compete for a $1 million prize. The hope was that a third of military vehicles would drive themselves by 2015.
Like many emerging technologies, self-driving has found uses in specialized applications long before reaching the general public. In the pit mines of northern Australia, trucks the size of a spacious house rumble over gravel roads without a human touch. Combine harvesters and other farm vehicles are increasingly outfitted with self-driving capabilities, as are specialized vehicles in warehouses, factories, and other industrial environments.
Today more and more self-driving features come as options on high end conventional cars, like the BMWs and Volvos that keep lanes, self-park, and brake for emergencies. While their manufacturers are eager to point out that such cars augment your skillful driving, rather than replace it, some systems are getting so powerful that distinctions blur.
Google, of course, is famously working on self-driving systems for the open road, with full autonomy as an explicit goal. But from Toyota to Nissan, several other companies are quietly chasing very similar dreams. Three states now permit self-guided vehicles. Will the autonomous future arrive not with a bang, but so gradually we barely notice?
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