Autonomous vehicles, driverless, or self-driving cars utilize the latest technology comprising of an array of sensors, and onboard computer systems. Allowing for the logistical flow of traffic with only slight or no requirement for human interaction.
Throughout this article, I will look at the history of development for autonomous vehicles, how they are currently faring, and what could be found in their future with further advances in the sector.
I will also investigate the pros and cons brought about by removing the human element from driving, ranging from the effects on human health, potential dangers, and other distinct applications of the technology used.
Back to the Future
The first realistic vision for a true driverless vehicle was first unveiled in 1925 on Broadway. When the ‘American Wonder’ was first showcased by Houdina Radio Control.
Starting life as a 1926 Chandler sedan, the Wonder underwent several modifications, having been fitted with an antenna system designed to receive radio signals from another operating vehicle that would follow closely behind.
Capable of performing many basic maneuvers the Wonder served as a scaled-up version of a modern-day children’s RC car, with the operator able to speed or slow down the car’s progress, turn corners and even honk the horn.
Tragically the Wonders’ first outing was cut short as she suffered a collision with another vehicle which, unfortunately for the developers, was filled with photographers for the event.
1930s and 1940s
In the late 1930s as part of the World’s Fair ‘Futurama’ exhibit, an advanced prototype model of an autonomous vehicle was unveiled. Designed and presented by Norman Bel Geddes the vehicle, similarly to the Wonder, was operated via radio signals and propelled forward utilizing electromagnetism provided by circuits housed within the thoroughfare.
Bel Geddes expanded on what his vision had been in his 1940 book ‘Magic Motorways’ giving his thoughts on what was yet to come for transportation and the future of logistics. Predicting that humans would almost wholly be removed from driving by the 1960s.
During 1953 engineer, Leland M. Hancock was inspired by what he had seen in RCA Labs. Witnessing a mini car designed and built by them, controlled by patterned wiring found on the lab floor he decided to experiment and scale this idea for use in highways.
Hancock, working alongside the people at RCA Labs, successfully debuted this system. He achieved this by embedding detection circuits into the thoroughfare, capable of detecting and sending the impulse commands required to have the vehicle navigate itself.
Full commercialization of Hancock’s system was estimated to be concluded by the mid-1970s, unfortunately, since most of us still have to undertake the task of driving ourselves, this wasn’t to be the case.The history of driverless cars, from the 1930s to present day. Click To Tweet
1960s and 1970s
Ohio State University undertook a development project during 1960 centered around developing autonomous vehicles, capable of navigating via control devices embedded within the highway. It was in 1966 that Dr. Robert L. Cosgriff stated that, in his opinion, the system could be ready for commercial and public use within 15 years.
In Popular Science’s 1961 August edition they ran an article showcasing the Aeromobile 200. Designed by William Bertelsen, the Aeromobile 200 was an air-cushioned vehicle, its intent was to reform transportation as people knew it; with fast speed, self-driving hover vehicles.
A modified Citroen DS also underwent testing during the 1960s by the United Kingdom’s Road Research Laboratory. A series of magnetic cables were entrenched in the thoroughfare which would propel the vehicle forwards.
During track testing speeds of up to 130 km/h were achieved without any variance in the rate of progress or route, beyond what was capable with a human driver behind the wheel.
Throughout the 1970s research drove forward with the introduction of cruise control devices triggered via signals from the cabling embedded beneath the tracks. In analyses made weighing up the cost-benefit, it is estimated the use of this system on British highways could have been paid off by the turn of the century; allowing for a road user increase of up to 50% whilst preventing almost 40% of RTA’s (road traffic accidents).
Unfortunately, mainly due to funding issues, many of the projects in this period were abandoned or ceased. With funding for the Citroen DS project testing being withdrawn mid-decade.
The research done in the 1970s remains integral to the development of autonomous vehicles to this day. Seeing the first step into the research for intelligent automated logic that would be required if the vision for true autonomy was ever to be realized.
Mercedes-Benz began testing a robotic van designed by Ernst Dickmanns and team from the Bundeswehr University in Munich achieving speeds of 63km/h on empty roads. The Prometheus Project from EUREKA also undertook research and development on driverless vehicles between the late ’80s until the mid-90s costing just over $840,000,000.
During the same time, the Autonomous Land driven Vehicle (ALV) project funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) incorporated many new technological developments from several universities and research institutes across the United States. This resulted in the ALV becoming the first autonomous vehicle capable of road-following using lidar, computer tracking, and robotic control.
These advancements in technology meant the ALV was capable of achieving on-road demonstrations at speeds of up to 31km/h.
HRL Labs were the first to demonstrate the capabilities of this technology off-road, using map and sensor-based way-finding on the ALV; allowing it to traverse a distance of 610m at a breezy 3.1km/h. Having to undertake complex maneuvers over natural obstacles.
Once 1989 had rolled around Carnegie Mellon University were pioneers in controlling autonomous vehicles with the use of neural networks, forming the bedrock for control strategies.
Congress in the United States passed a bill in 1991 directing the US Department of Transportation to…
“..demonstrate an automated vehicle and highway system by 1991..”
Because of this, the NAHSC (National Automated Highway System Consortium) was created by the highway administration.
Wide-ranging engineering development and research reached a peak in 1997 in San Diego. Where a convoy of automated vehicles undertook a demonstration of their new driverless technologies with thousands in attendance to watch the spectacle.
Demo 97′ utilized a system allowing for closer-headway between the vehicles (a process intended to reduce the amount of reacting distance a human operator would require if he or she should have to step in) as well as free running vehicles operating as mixed traffic.
Several other motor manufacturers were also invited to demonstrate their latest technologies.
With the main objective being to design a system ready for a commercial rollout, the program was scrapped late in the decade with budget constraints being cut for research being the most prevalent factor. Funding expenditure is estimated to be in the region of $90 million.
During what they had coined ‘No Hands Across America’ Carnegie Mellon University completed a journey of 5,000km across varying terrain claiming up to 98% of the journey to be controlled autonomously. The vehicle utilized a neural network to operate only the steering wheel, with the gas and brake left in the control of a human operator to alleviate safety concerns.
By 1996 the ARGO project had been initiated by the University of Parma lead by Alberto Broggi, the projects main aim was to get an adapted Lanica Thema to follow the normal road lines found on streets and highways across the world. Eliminating the need for further expenditure to modify the roads for purpose.
The end result was a highway journey across northern regions of Italy spanning 1,900km in a six-day period dubbed (translated from Italian) ‘One Thousand Automatic Miles.’ Clocking in an average speed of 90km/h.
During the course of this journey, the furthest distance traveled automatically in one stretch was 55km, with 94% of the driving being autonomous. This is an impressive feat when we consider the vehicle was fitted with just two simple, cost-effective black and white onboard cameras, utilizing various algorithms to translate this into understanding its surroundings.
Often hailed as the worlds first autonomous vehicle, the ParkShuttle is a commercial people carrier which navigates via a series of magnetic reference points embedded within the roads surface to confirm its position. The Netherlands is home to two projects, one at Schiphol Airport during 97′ and the business park Rivium in 99′.
Each ParkShuttle would ferry members of the public and do not contain a steering wheel or operating pedals. Likewise, they do not have onboard stewards or safety drivers. Giving good rise to the claim as the world’s first truly driverless vehicles.
During the first half of the 2000s, the United States Governments set up three military lead projects known as DEMO’s I – III.
In 2001 DEMO III, headed up by the US Army, evidenced land-based unmanned vehicles were capable of piloting themselves over many miles of adverse terrain and obstacle evasion.
For this to be achievable, the National Institute of Standards and Technology made available a control system they had been working on. This system (the Real-Time Control System) was capable of not only controlling an individual unit, but whole convoys could be tracked and coordinated simultaneously, showing a scale previously unseen.
During March of 04′ DARPA issued its first Grand Challenge, with a prize pool of $1million available to any team of engineers capable of creating an autonomous vehicle that would be able to traverse a 150-mile course situated in the Mojave Desert. None of the teams that entered that year were successful.
A year later and the Grand Challenge was once again issued, this time with obstacles located prior and GPS points being placed along the route. Five vehicles were successful in navigating the course that year.
The third Grand Challenge came in 07′ this time held in a more built-up urban setting. Carnegie Mellon University secured first place in a modified 2007 Chevy Tahoe.
The Grand Challenge and other subsequent similar competitions have been integral to the research and development of driverless technologies. Giving both researchers and students the chance to study the effects driverless technology may have on road traffic safety and modern-day urban traffic congestion issues in today’s inner-city areas.
In early 06′ a United Kingdom-based advisory board ‘Foresight’ unveiled a report in which they predict driverless cars to be predominant on UK roads by 2056, using an RFID tagging system. With the Royal Academy of Engineering stating that we should be seeing driverless trucks up and down the UK’s highways by 2019.
Google has also been researching and developing its own self-driving technology but has mainly chosen to do so privately deciding to make public announcements at a later date.
A large market share of major motor manufacturers, including the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Nissan, and Toyota are currently all developing and testing their own autonomous vehicle systems.
Alberto Broggi and his team from the University of Parma’s VisLab undertook a 9,900-mile demonstration in 2010. Four vehicles were taken on the 100-day test run, leaving Parma, Italy in July, and arriving at their destination at the Shanghai Expo in October.
The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge was a landmark step in the pursuit of driverless vehicles. Marking the first time an autonomous vehicle had made an intercontinental journey.
Researchers, however, were present as passengers in the vehicles throughout their journey should the vehicles face a crisis they couldn’t undertake autonomously. Having to intervene several times when the vehicles had become stuck in traffic jams, and to operate toll booths.
Also during 2010, ‘Leonie’ was unveiled by the Institute of Control Engineering, demonstrating the capability of autonomous driving on German streets for the first time. Leonie became the first car to receive a license for autonomous operation on the roads and highways of Germany.
Whilst in the United States a Google-owned Toyota Prius that had been modified with their own autonomous vehicle technology was licensed by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in Nevada during May 2012. This was made possible after the state of Nevada passed a law regarding the operation of driverless vehicles in June 2011, only coming into effect by March of 2012.
The Google Prius was the first vehicle in the United States to receive its license for operation. Driverless cars in the state of Nevada are noted for sporting license plates with a red background, with the infinity symbol (∞) found to the left.
According to the director of the DMV, they felt the infinity symbol was the best way to characterize the ‘car of the future.’ Test regulations in the state of Nevada state that during testing, one person must be behind the wheel, and another must also occupy the passenger seat.
Whilst 100% of autonomous vehicles are not widely commercially available on the public market, most contemporary vehicles will feature partial autonomous functions. With onboard logic systems, either assisting or taking full control seamlessly throughout the operation of the vehicle.
Ranging from adaptive cruise control, which will monitor the speed and distance of adjacent vehicles taking measures to adjust speed following the progress of surrounding traffic; parking assist, to aid the driver through parking manoeuvres; and lane assist, which observes lane position, warning the driver when there is lane drift, and it some cases will even make corrective maneuvers autonomously.
The first autonomous vehicle available to the market for commercial use was Induct Technology’s ‘Navia’, released in early 2014. The Navia had a maximum speed limit of 20 km/h, resembling a large golf cart able to seat up to eight passengers.
The main intent of the Navia was for use in large, modern, pedestrian heavy areas, with city centers, airports, theme parks, and industrial sites being the most likely places to see the Navia in operation.
Delphi Automotive achieved the first coast to coast journey across the United States during April 2015. The Delphi Automotive designed vehicle traveled under autonomous control between San Francisco and New York for 99% of the trip.
Soon after in July of 2015, Google made the announcement that vehicles from its self-driving car project had been in involved in 14 minor RTA incidents, dating back to the project’s beginnings in 2009. Chris Urmston, leading the development, noted the incidents were all caused by human drivers operating cars in surrounding traffic, with 11 of them being rear-ended collisions.
“Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road. That’s a big motivator for
us.” – Chris Urmston
So far over 2million miles have been traveled by the driverless vehicles since testing began.Driverless Cars: Past...Present...And Future Click To Tweet
The Road to Fully Automated Driving
With the current level of technology available to us, autonomous capabilities found in modern vehicles are not capable of much more than parking assistance or lane monitoring. The next big hurdle to overcome is vehicle inter-connectivity, which is crucial for the implementation of safe driverless operation on our highways.
Until we reach such a point that this technology is widely implemented, and available commercially, driverless and human-driven vehicles could never co-exist safely. Most of the world’s road infrastructure will require upgrading, making it suitable for the use of driverless vehicles with arrays of sensors and constant monitoring.
Pedestrians, however, will be the hardest puzzle to solve, and the ability for driverless vehicles to make judgments and react autonomously to often unpredictable human behavior just doesn’t exist at this point in time. The latest wave of self-driving artificial intelligence displays a competency to some degree, but the judgment of human operation behind the wheel will prove expensive and very difficult to duplicate.
Until these complications can be overcome, driverless vehicles will always pose a high level of risk to other vehicles and pedestrians. Driverless cars at the current level of technology can only be considered operationally safe when tested in a controlled environment with other automated vehicles.
This is not to say that currently, we do not benefit from partial autonomy from lane-changing to automatic braking and parking assistance. But a fully automated driverless society is still much farther away than had been originally thought and will require high levels of funding and testing to achieve.
Autonomous vehicles have yet to rival even the worst human drivers.A detailed guide on autonomous vehicles. Driverless Cars: Past...Present...Future! Click To Tweet
How Do We Benefit?
Once driverless technology has reached a level where it is widely available for commercial use, experts predict a societal shift, bringing around several benefits to human life.
As driverless vehicles will most likely communicate with not only each other but GPS satellites and sensors placed within the driving environment. They will work together as a hive-mind making constant calculations, taking into consideration how many other road users are in the area, weather, road works.
They will be able to identify the most optimal route to your desired location, spreading resources across the roadmap to avoid congestion and keep an even flow of traffic.
Increased Levels of Safety
It is estimated that worldwide an average of 1.2million people die each year in road traffic accidents. With the implementation of autonomous vehicles, experts predict a potential decrease of up to 90% of accidents in the USA alone, saving billions in damages and medical costs. Not to mention the reduced unnecessary loss of life.
More Spare Time
Recent studies estimate that the average American driver spends around 101 minutes in their car daily. Over a lifetime (assuming a starting age of 17), this means drivers will spend roughly 38,000 hours behind the wheel.
With the introduction and truly autonomous technology, this time has the potential to be freed up for the pursuit of other activities. Such as reading, streaming your favorite TV series, or utilizing the time for work, potentially giving rise to a shorter average workday than we currently experience.
Driverless cars will most likely give rise to several businesses operating on a carpool or carsharing model. Carsharing services such as Zipcar already exist, and autonomous vehicles could fit right into their business plans, potentially turning cars less into something that a majority of people own, but making them a service that people can access on-demand.
Private hire taxi firms like Uber will likely adapt to accommodate autonomous vehicles into their business model. Driverless technology would give private taxi hire businesses the chance to reduce overheads by eliminating labor costs.
Reduced levels of road traffic could lead to better overall health for drivers. Traffic jams have shown to be very stressful for us, causing spikes in blood pressure, anxiety, and a detrimental effect on cardiovascular fitness.
Between 1990 and 2007, CO2 emissions in the transport sector grew globally by 45%. With the large-scale introduction of electric, autonomous vehicles into our daily lives, we could potentially see a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by as much as up to 95% per mile by 2030.
Driverless cars will undoubtedly have a negative effect on employment levels in many sectors (people driving taxis or transporting goods), there is also massive growth predicted in new sectors. With demand for software developers, network engineers, and hi-tech machine experts expected to see a large rise.The benefits of driverless cars... Click To Tweet
The Bad News
In the early days of large-scale autonomous vehicle availability, self-driving cars will most likely be unaffordable for the average person, estimated to cost in the 100’s of 1000’s at first.
As it stands, autonomous vehicles have many hurdles to overcome when navigating pedestrian heavy areas, unable to determine human intent on the road. Jaywalkers, a sudden increase in foot-traffic, hand signals, and general body language currently can not be understood by computers.
In these situations, when having to deal with the idiosyncrasies of human behavior, a human operator is unparalleled when compared with a machine.
In May of 2016, the first recorded fatal road traffic accident occurred when a Tesla Model S engaged in autopilot, collided with an 18-wheeler in Williston, Florida.
This begs the question if an autonomous vehicle crashes who is to be held accountable? Is it the owner of vehicle or the software engineer who designed the operating system it runs on?
Driverless technology is sure to spark debate regarding financial, legal, and ethical responsibilities. What procedures will the world’s police forces put in place to interact with driverless vehicles in cases of accidents or criminal activity?
Major fears over privacy and the collection of data that would be required for the integration of driverless technology into society. Not only the gathering of user information and location, but the potential for vehicles to be hacked and remotely controlled by a third party.
Adverse weather conditions will affect an autonomous vehicles ability to perceive its environment. Lowering obstacle recognition levels and sign comprehension will lead to an increased safety risk during these times.
As society adjusts to driving less and less frequently, proficiency and experience of the task will decline. Should a future citizen be required to drive manually, will they even possess the skills necessary? What issues could this raise?
All our current road systems will need a complete overhaul to provide compatibility for driverless technology. This will undoubtedly come at a great financial cost for the world’s governments, with the taxpayer left picking up the bill.How close are driverless cars? Click To Tweet
Before we take the step towards a fully integrated driverless society, the factors outlined in this article will need to be taken into consideration before making the switch.
Driverless vehicles have come a long way from the simple radio-controlled models showcased in the 1920s and 1930s. With the developments made by Mercedes-Benz in the 1980s setting the foundation for research and development of contemporary self-driving cars to this day.
Most experts in the field predict most major manufacturers will have launched semi or fully autonomous cars by 2020. With a majority of cars being fully automated by 2035.
Engineering developments are constantly being made, and the continued improvement of this technology will serve as a benefit to society as a whole. With cost being the most limiting factor placed on the rate of advancement.