a brief history of autonomous cars.

Will Shadbolt
March 30, 2017

Driverless cars are beginning to look less like science fiction and more like the future—if not the present. Google already uses a number of its own driverless cars and other brands are working on their own versions, so driverless cars might be closer than we think. But the idea of a car driving itself also started much earlier than you might think, with plans dating back all the way to the 1920’s. Here is a brief overview of the history of autonomous vehicles.

Although the concept was first thought up during the 20’s, not many people knew about it until 1939, the year GM held their “Futurama” exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. Their driverless car design gave the public their first exposure to the idea. The exhibit was intended to show what the future could be like in 20 years, and although now it seems like GM was slightly premature in their prediction. In 1958 the company had created a Chevrolet that could steer itself. “Pick-up coils” in the car’s front end that could sense an alternating current in a wire implanted in the road and appropriately move the steering wheel. Although not exactly practical for wide use, this was a first step in actually designing a driverless car.

Almost another 20 years passed before the next big development. Japanese scientists used two cameras which relayed information to a computer in place of “pick-up coils” in 1977. After that, scientists began focusing on speed, and by 1995, a driverless car with a maximum speed on 180 km/h had been created.

There were three major aspects to developing a true driverless car: it had to sense its surroundings, process them and then react to them. Although each one of these was able to do so, it would take more time before these vehicles were ready to be tested outside of a lab.

In 2004, DARPA created a challenge for autonomous vehicles: a 142-mile-long course in 10 hours with $1 million as the prize. There were 15 cars, none of which were able to finish. The best vehicle only managed 7.5 miles.

The next year, a similar competition was held, this time on a 132-mile course with 3 tunnels, over 100 turns and steep cliffs. The prize money was also upped to $2 million. This time, a driverless Volkswagen developed by a team at Stanford University completed the challenge in just under 7 hours.

In 2007, DARPA upped the ante and the conducted a race in an urban setting. Although the course was much shorter, here the driverless vehicles had to comply with traffic regulations and deal with manned cars. A vehicle developed by Carnegie Mellon won in around 4 hours and 10 minutes.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in the history of autonomous driving. And, if you’re curious about how driverless cars could change automotive advertising, contact Giovatto Advertising today. Much like the autonomous cars concept, we’ve been around for a while. We’ve seen our share of automotive trends and changes in the market, and whether commercial driverless cars hit the market next year or ten from now, we’ll be ready to make your dealership reach your target audience. Remember, millions in auto sales, thousands of campaigns, hundreds of auto dealers—one agency.

For more information on driverless cars, check out Getoffroad.com's infographic about the growth of the autonomous car market.