Car manufacturers such as Tesla, BMW, Nissan, Toyota, and more make us feel like self-driving cars are right around the corner. Each year, events like CES and the Detroit Auto Show bring new auto technologies to life, and the autonomous car seems to be the most interesting of them all.
But, while the technology is indeed evolving, specialists still believe there will be years before we will see one of these smart vehicles on the roads, driving without human assistance. The problem is not just represented by technology; there is also a strong mentality shift that has to happen so the buyers will accept autonomous cars in their lives.
Right now, the American market (and even the European one) is dominated by SUVs, trucks, and crossovers. People like to have powerful cars, and the low gas prices don’t discourage this preference. As a result, if you compare the price of an SUV that comes on a tested platform, with the incredibly high price of an autonomous car (the first designs will be expensive, at least at this state), the result is clear.
Still, the progress is inching forward, and we expect to see the first vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals by the year 2020. These will be mostly deployed in urban areas, where it’s easier to control the sensors and keep the communication with the car at optimal standards.
But before we talk any further about the future of this technology, let’s have a look at the past and present situation.
A Quick History Lesson
In this section, we’re going to create a timeline of the most important events in the history of driverless cars technology.
The idea of a vehicle that doesn’t need a driver is not new. In reality, it started with the invention of the car, and in 1925, the first prototype was presented to the world. Francis Houdina, an American inventor and the owner of Houdina Radio Control, invented a radio controlled car that could start its engine, sound the horn, and even shift gears without human assistance. The inventor even drove it in Manhattan, without steering the wheel.
1969 – The Robo-chauffeur
While no self-driving vehicle was built in 1969, it is a very important year because John McCarthy (one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence) wrote a paper in which he described a vehicle similar to modern self-driving cars.
His paper talks about an automatic chauffeur capable of driving on public roads using the information from a video camera. Furthermore, this vehicle should be able to receive and follow a destination (inputted using a keyboard) and understand when it has to change lanes, roads, or even slow down or speed up as needed.
As you can see, the vehicle described in this paper is, more or less, the vehicle we hope to see on the streets in a few years. It also stays at the basis of all driverless cars built up until today.
1995 – No hands across America
The “No hands across America” is a trip taken by researchers Dean Pomerleau and Todd Jochem, who invented a self-driving car system (while working in the Navlab structure), and tested it by driving it from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to San Diego, California. The system is actually an autonomous minivan that required human assistance for speed control and brake, but it made the trip!
YouTube video: https://youtu.be/ilP4aPDTBPE
The early 2000s – Self-parking systems
While the self-driving car was still a distant dream at this point in history, car manufacturers developed a smart car parking system that uses sensors and smart technologies to assist with parking the car. Of course, nowadays this is a basic requirement in high-end vehicles, but back then, it was a huge step forward that showed technology and driving can work together.
The first to implement these systems were Toyota (the Prius can parallel park by itself since 2003) and Lexus. These were followed by Ford and BMW in 2009 and 2010.
2009 – Google’s Autonomous Car
Google is one of the big players working on an autonomous vehicle, and they started the project in 2009 working in secret at what today is known as Waymo. The project is going so well, that, as of 2018, they take test drives, with human passengers, in urban environments.
2013 – Other Automotive Companies Join In
About this time in history, most major automotive players start working on their own self-driving prototypes. Still, the most recent release date is 2019 (GM), so it will be a while until we actually can see some results. However, the research for an autonomous vehicle did yield results as modern cars are now improved with interesting features such as:
- Accident avoidance;
- Staying within the lanes and more.
Key Players in the Industry
At the present moment, even though there is no self-driving car that can legally drive on public roads, there are several powerful automotive companies that work diligently on making this a reality. We’ll discuss the most important ones and their accomplishments in the niche.