Self-Driving Cars: Past, Present and Future


December 07, 2015

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Self-Driving Cars: Past, Present and Future

By Yousef Abdul-Husain

What once made us ooh and ahh on the big screen is starting to become more than just a fantasy. Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous cars, are headed towards the roads of America at blistering speed. How will self-driving cars change the way we drive? Will we be able to take naps on our way to work in the morning? Will they reduce car accidents or even eliminate them altogether? Will car insurance be a thing of the past?! While we might not know the answer to those questions anytime soon, let's take a look at the past, present and future of self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars of the past

As surprising as this may sound, one of the first self-driving car tests was in the 1920s. Spurred on by science fiction writings at the time, Houdina Radio Control demonstrated not one, but two radio-controlled driverless cars by driving them through New York City's crowded traffic. Though primitive, it was a technological breakthrough at the time that got the world intrigued with the idea of a car with no driver behind the wheel.

What really got the public's attention is when General Motors showcased radio-controlled cars driving around at the Futurama exhibition at the famous 1939 New York World's Fair. Not only did people get to see cars driving around without drivers, they were able to see it in the context of a bustling city, which helped spur the imagination and want for self-driving vehicles.

After successfully intriguing people at the New York World's Fair, General Motors developed the Firebird II concept car, which they unveiled in a TV show called "Key to the Future" in 1956. During the show, a father driving the car would turn a knob to engage an autopilot system. The car would automatically shift to a designated lane and start driving itself while the relaxed father could light up a cigar, and yes, they actually showed him doing that in the show.

Since then there were many experiments with driverless cars but mainstream publicity was sparse, until of course the famous Knight Rider TV show in the 1980's. In the now-famous show from 1982, David Hasselhoff's car, named KITT, had many technological marvels, including x-ray vision, a homing device, medical sensor, electronic sensor, the ability to talk and of course the ability to drive himself anywhere the Hoff needed him. The show was extremely popular thanks in part to KITT's autonomous driving ability, and cool red blinking LED lights on the hood.

One of the biggest technological breakthroughs for the advancement of driverless cars happened in the 1980's, the availability of cheaper and smaller computer parts. This led to Jaguar Cars developing a vehicle that had an autopilot mode that allowed for adaptive cruise control, collision warning with a haptic throttle, rumble strip warning and automatic lane following. The vehicle ran for 17,000 miles autonomously on public highways in the UK, France, Germany and Italy, and was one of the first successful public projects for autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars of today

What we thought was only concepts and dreams are starting to come to fruition in the self-driving car world. Recently there's been resurgence in the field thanks in part to some of the new kids on the block in the automobile manufacturing world.

Google is famously working on self-driving vehicles for the open road with full autonomy. The online search engine company uploaded a YouTube video showcasing their fully autonomous car and reactions of the people driving in them on May 27, 2014. Titled "A First Drive," the video instantly went viral. Google's goal is to bring self-driving cars to the masses to improve road safety and allow for people without the ability to drive to be able to get around easily. The internet giant plans to have their driverless cars on the road by 2018.

Tesla is taking a daring chance on autonomous vehicles. Instead of developing a whole new car specifically for autonomous driving, they've upgraded their current flagship vehicle, the Tesla Model S, to give it the ability to drive itself on the highway at 70 miles per hour, which they call autopilot mode. While it's not a full autonomous mode quite yet, the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, states that full automation is coming in about three years.

It's not just self-driving cars though, there's been innovations in self-driving public transport as well. Would you be surprised if we told you that five cities around the world already have fully autonomous public buses? In Lausanne, Switzerland, the EasyMile driverless shuttle drives 1.8 miles across the University of Lausanne. In Trikala, Greece, the CityMobil2 carries 10 passengers along a 1.5-mile route. In Zhengzhou, China, the Chinese bus company Yutong is testing a self-driving bus that travels up to speeds of 40 miles per hour along a 20 mile route. In Wageningen, Netherlands, WEpods shuttle six passengers at a time along a 17-mile route on public roads. And finally in Nilton Keynes, UK, the LUTZ Pathfinder is a two-seater pod style car that's being currently tested, with the goal to allow residents to travel easily between popular destinations downtown.

Self-driving cars of tomorrow

Spurred on by tech companies entering the automobile world, most major automobile manufacturers such as Ford, General Motors, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Toyota are all testing driverless car systems. Some claim that as early as 2020 they will be mass producing self-driving vehicles.

Toyota it set to launch their first autonomous vehicle in 2020, just in time for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Ford's CEO expects fully autonomous cars by 2020. Audi has announced that the next-generation Audi R8, set to be launched as early as 2017, will have an autonomous driving system that will function "better than human beings." Nissan has announced that they will be ready with revolutionary commercially-viable "Autonomous Drive" in multiple vehicles by 2020.

At the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan also unveiled the IDS concept vehicle, a fully electric vehicle featuring a piloted mode, where the vehicle takes control of the driving and transforms the cabin layout for ultimate relaxation, including the steering wheel moving back into the console and an iPad-like screen coming out for entertainment.

In May of this year, Mercedes-Benz generated a considerable amount of buzz when its futuristic looking concept car, the F 015, was spotted on the streets of San Francisco, driving completely on its own. Blogs and Twitter accounts went crazy over the unique design and luxuriousness the car embodied.

One of the biggest rumors circulating in the automobile and technology industry is that Apple is working on an electric car that may or may not be self-driving.

It's not just the car companies pushing for a future full of driverless cars. The University of Michigan opened Mcity on July 20, 2015, a 32-acre simulated urban and suburban environment made specifically to test self-driving vehicles. A key goal of this endeavor is to get autonomous cars on the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan by 2021.

Self-driving cars are all the rage right now in the automobile and technology world. What do you think of self-driving cars? Tell us in the comments or Visit us at GEICO

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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