Past, present and future: A history of driverless

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



The idea of a driverless vehicle able to take us from A to B with no human intervention has fascinated us for an incredibly long time. What might surprise most, though, is the fact that we’ve been anticipating the arrival of AVs for over 80 years now. So, where does the history of driverless really begin?


Past: Visions of automation


The concept of a driverless vehicle was first shared with the public on a grand scale at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. At this event, focused on technologies of the future, the idea of automated highways, where cars travelled in trench-like tracks was first introduced. By 1957, the concept had developed further and a popular US advert modelled the future of travel on AVs, creating that iconic image of a family playing a board game as their car drove itself along the highway.


These early presentations of AVs showcase the opportunities the yet to be created tech could create. A year later, in 1958, the real work began. General Motors and RCA teamed up to develop prototype automated highways, going down the smart roads route to achieve their driverless vision. 



Photo: Joseph Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A decade on, in 1968, Daniel Aaron Wisner, an RCA engineer, created the first system to put an electronic device in control. He named it ‘Automotive Electronic Cruise Control’, though we now refer to it as just cruise control. German automotive manufacturers, Continental, took a huge leap forward the following year, in 1969, as their technicians successfully modified a passenger car to follow a circular track without a human driver. But even though an AV wasn’t their aim (it was all to better test their tires), the images of a driverless car circling the track as if steered by a ghost, further fuelled people’s imagination.


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, progress sped up. In 1977, the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab in Japan made the first intelligent car which could navigate by tracking white road markers and reached speeds of up to 32km/h. In 1978, Bosch made a major leap and introduced an important driver assistance feature: the first Anti-locking Braking System. In 1982, we got more familiar with AVs in popular culture as Knight Rider introduced a self-driving self-aware car to the small screen with ‘KITT’.


By 1986, the desire to see self-driving on our roads had grown and Prometheus, the largest automated driving project to this day, was designed to help us get there. Starting out with an automated van, over the next nine years the project made huge progress, culminating in the 1,758km journey of a Mercedes S-Class from Munich to Copenhagen, and back. The vehicle covered up to 158km at a time without human intervention and even reached speeds of up to 175km/h. This was made somewhat simpler when our connectivity capabilities grew with the widespread adoption of the internet in 1993.


In 1995, The Electronic Stability Program, which reduced skidding and put safety in the hands of an automated system, hit the market and was closely followed with the launch of GPS. When the tech went live as an optional extra in the Oldsmobile 88, a car which cost just over $2,200, it opened up a wealth of new possibilities for the development of AVs.

Continental Image - Ciontidrom Electronic Test 1969
Continental AG

Present: Getting connected

Since the turn of the century, focus in the world of driverless vehicles has switched to tech. Though there is still plenty of scope for imagining what the driverless future may look like, the reality of autonomous driving is coming much closer, and that is all down to innovation.


Back in 2003, Toyota began to address a universal pain point for drivers and offered the first parking assist system as an optional extra. It made hands-free parking a reality in Japan and quickly, across the world. As automated features became more common, DARPA launched a ‘Grand Challenge’ to increase the capabilities of fully autonomous vehicles. However, in the first challenge, in 2004, none of the vehicles entered managed to complete the 150-mile unassisted.


A little later, however, we saw that AVs could cover decent distances. In 2010, The University of Parma’s VISLAB successfully sent four autonomous vehicles on a journey from Parma to Shanghai, covering nearly 16,000km. From that year, huge investments were made in the tech. Google X – the software giant’s semi-secret research facility – launched its self-driving car project that year. They’ve now clocked up over one million miles.


From 2010 to now, new developments have arrived rapidly. From 2012 to 2015, dynamic mapping made an entrance. Continental’s ‘eHorizon’ and ‘Connected Horizon’ from Bosch both began to integrate topographical and digital map data with sensor data.


In 2015, Daimler and Mercedes Benz tested their Future Truck 2025, reaching speeds of 80 km/h while driving autonomously on Germany’s autobahn. In the same year, Mercedes Benz wowed audiences at CES 2015 with its sleek, hydrogen-electric, self-driving concept car and by 2016, more automated features were ready for launch. Traffic jam assist was developed, promising drivers they can take their hands off the wheel when stuck in queues and by 2018, parking assist had become smarter – now it could look out for spaces for you.


In the same year, cameras began to replace mirrors, providing better visibility, a better view and increased connectivity. By 2020, Augmented reality (AR), which allows virtual information to appear out your front window, became a real possibility. Road Departure Protection systems came into effect in 2020 too, executing active road keeping in emergency situations and showcasing how automated functions might improve road safety.



Future: Mass expansion

Progress isn’t stopping there. Technology is moving forward as developers from every part of the growing industry are entrenched in the, rather laborious, steps towards creating a driverless future. Lots of people are eager for that future to arrive, but there is an incredible amount of work to be done to make it happen. So though driverless vehicles are yet to arrive on a mass scale, they are on their way.


Major breakthroughs are predicted for vehicle to everything (V2X) communication, meaning cameras, sensors and backend data might allow vehicles to know their environment by 2024. From around 2023 to 2025, we expect Level 2+, hands-free driving to be available on highways and parking will become a breeze from 2024. At that point, cars will be able to find a space and park themselves without any human interaction beyond the instruction to park.


In 2025, highway autopilot is predicted to arrive. That means Level 4 control which allows drivers to ‘switch off’ should be an option on highways and it will likely be popular – some predictions assume there will be 250,000 autonomous cars on the road by then.


As different levels of autonomous travel become available, experts expect that driving zones which separate vehicles with different capabilities will be introduced from 2025 onwards. With those precautions in place, forecasters see 54 million autonomous cars on the road by 2035. And by 2040, predictions suggest that the adoption of autonomous vehicles will have decreased the number of road accidents we see today by up to 80%.


Trucks will get in on the action by 2040 too. Long convoys of freight vehicles (“platoons”) are expected to dominate highways and within a decade, all cars will have some level of driverless function. Self-parking will become the norm too and will likely reduce the space we need for storing our vehicles by up to 75% by 2050.


So, what happens after 2050? That’s simple. We enter a fully automated driving world.


What do you think the future holds? Are you surprised we’ve been planning for AVs for so long? Does this timeline seem realistic? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below!

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