It’s been under development for decades, and now the technology behind autonomous vehicles is undergoing rigorous testing in select cities across the nation. Driverless taxis will arrive first, followed by personal automobiles. Self-driving cars may be the wave of the future, but there are ripples in the sea, suggesting that they’re still not quite ready for prime time.
In the beginning
Before we look at today’s tech, let’s review how we got to where we are today.
Soon after the first cars arrived on the market, engineers began imagining cars without drivers. In the 1920s, the Achen Motor Company tested a radio-controlled model in several cities. In fact, a 1926 article published by The Milwaukee Sentinel alerted its readers to a pending automated event, describing a “phantom motor car” set to travel on city streets. The article said the car would start its own motor, engage the clutch, move the steering wheel, and honk its horn on its own. Although successfully deployed, the technology was automated, not autonomous – it relied exclusively on outside control.
Automated guided cars were showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and tested by RCA Labs during the 1950s. At the same time, General Motors also began testing experimental cars equipped with electronic guidance systems on automatic highways. Still, it would take decades before vehicle control moved primarily from external control (automated) to internal control (autonomous).
The road to self-driving cars
Decades of testing by various parties led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, to back an Autonomous Land Vehicle project using technologies co-developed by academic and corporate sources. For the first time, a driverless vehicle equipped with Lidar (laser lights), computer vision, and autonomous robotic control successfully traveled at speeds up to 19 miles per hour. Autonomous driving had finally arrived.
With the seed planted, autonomous technology soon blossomed as universities, automakers, and other agencies worked to make improvements. One of the most impressive tests was conducted by Audi in 2010, when the automaker successfully sent a driverless Audi TTS to the top of Pikes Peak – a 12.42-mile journey involving 156 turns and at time operating at high speeds – without a driver behind the wheel.
Driverless tech today
Strong advances in autonomous technology have brought us to where we are today. Notably, such companies as Waymo, GM, and Uber operate cars equipped with ultrasonic, image, radar, and Lidar sensors, deploying them on roads in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and elsewhere in an effort to fine-tune the technology. Such vehicles not only detect their surroundings, but communicate with each other, sending information to the “cloud” to alert connected vehicles of changes, such as a broken-down car or a defective traffic light, en route to their destination.
We humans may or may not like the idea of ceding control of our vehicles to computers, but eventually it will happen. However, it won’t occur without controversy, including instances when testing goes horribly wrong. That’s exactly what happened in March 2018, when an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, as she was crossing a street just as the driverless SUV was approaching.
The Arizona incident casts a cautionary spotlight on the technology, causing Uber to temporarily halt its testing. Other companies, including Toyota and NuTonomy, did likewise, pending the result of Uber’s investigation. Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik offered an interesting take on the accident, saying, “…we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one.” In effect, Krafcik seems to be claiming that some stakeholders are better equipped than others to deploy the technology.
The future is now
Like any emerging industry, the science behind autonomous vehicles will change as participants leave, update their technology, or merge with a competitor. When the tech goes mainstream – the moment a state allows driverless cars without restrictions – the transition will take decades. That said, human-operated vehicles and driverless cars will likely navigate streets together for the long term, especially outside of city centers where remote roads are not as clearly marked or mapped.