Look Ma, No Hands! A Brief History of Self-Driving Cars

By  |  Saturday, October 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Less than two weeks ago, I attended a talk by Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Schmidt spoke about a profoundly computer-augmented future, and said that there was no reason why super-safe self-driving cars couldn’t be built–in fact, he said he couldn’t understand why humans were allowed to drive automobiles at all. (As is fairly common with Schmidt comments, it wasn’t entirely clear where that comment sat on the continuum from utter frivolity to deadly seriousness.)

At the time, I wondered whether Google wanted to control the computers that controlled the world’s cars. Now we know the answer: It does, or at least it wants to play an active role in inventing the technology.

As the New York Times’ John Markoff reports and a Google blog post discloses, Google has been working on developing cars that can drive themselves. One such vehicle, a modified Prius, motored its way down the coast from San Francisco to Santa Monica. (Its route apparently came within a couple of miles of my house–maybe I shared the road with it.) The idea may stretch the definition of Google’s mission–“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”–but the noble goals include saving lives, reducing pollution, and generally making travel more efficient.

The Google blog post says that its autopilot vehicles have logged more than 140,000 miles to date, which presumably means the project has been going on for quite a while. It sounds cool, but I’m unclear why it’s apparently been secret until now, or why Schmidt spoke so cryptically and so recently of laws restricting the roads to self-driving cars without mentioning that Google was building them.

Google isn’t the only outfit working on this idea–a few months ago, I went for a very brief ride in a self-driving, self-parking Volkswagen developed at Stanford University. And the basic idea has been fodder for magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science for decades. Herewith, a few examples from the past seventy-seven years ago–none of which seem to have gotten as far as Google’s experiments.

Popular Mechanics, August 1933, “They’ve Gone Automatic!

In 1933, recent breakthroughs such as automatic garage door openers and power steering felt like the first steps towards fully automated cars. An uncredited Popular Mechanics author argued–not very convincingly–that it would be a straightforward home project to modify a roadster to start itself at an appointed time in the morning, open the garage door, and back itself out into the driveway. The writer also seemed to think that the invention of automatic transmissions provided most of the technology needed for self-driving cars to take to the streets.

Popular Science, May 1958, “The Car That Drives Itself

A report on car-automation experiments by GM, Ford, and Chrysler. GM’s, which involved embedding cable in highways and planting radio-control boxes by the side of the road, sound the most ambitious and least practical. A Ford engineer sniffs that GM’s idea would take a century to implement–which means that even in 2010, it isn’t yet hopelessly behind schedule.

Popular Mechanics, August 1958, “This Car Has Electric Brains

A Los Angeles college instructor has spent $12,000 designing a car that uses sound beams, gyroscopes, and other technologies to drive, steer, and brake itself. It also has electric doors and a record player. According to the story, he likes to lounge in the back seat when he takes his invention out on the road.

Popular Science, April 1967, “Automatic Car has Single Control

Ohio State University researches have built a car that’s drivable with a single T-control, with the goal of eventually designing an entirely automated vehicle. The drivers in the photo above are sensibly wearing helmets; if I ever buy a self-driving Googlemobile, I might don one myself.

Popular Science, October 1967, “How You’ll ‘Drive’ the Amazing Urbmobile

The Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory’s “Urbmobile” is a dual-mode electric car that can be driven traditionally on roads or glide at 60mph in automated mode along a subway-style track. It was funded by a $100,000 federal government grant, and the idea was to make it a reality by 1985 at the latest. Very Tomorrowland-esque.

Popular Science, May 2000, “Your Robot Chauffeur

A stretch of San Diego highway  paved with magnetic “nails” allows prototype cars from Honda and Buick to drive themselves; Nissan and Mercedes are experimenting with machine-vision systems which would let cars see the road in front of them.

Unlike some past automatic-car researchers, Google is being careful about managing people’s expectations. (blog post: “…this project is very much in the experimental stage”). Any guesses about whether the company’s investments are likely to lead to anything that’ll change the world any time soon?


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22 Comments For This Post

  1. Barbara R. Bell Says:

    Psychologically speaking, when people get behind their steering wheels, they experience a tremendous sense of 'control'. Do you think they'll be willing to give up this power and let a 'system' take over their control?

  2. Garrett Galloway Says:

    I would be happy to give up this control – along with the responsibility and insurance that accompanies it.

  3. Johan Says:

    Yes, just like they do when they take an elevator.

  4. Steve Kerr Says:

    I read an article in Linux Journal about a decade ago where someone in Italy had developed a self-driving car controlled by two Linux powered PCs. The car was fitted with two cameras (one in each upper corner of the windscreen) to give the car stereo vision. The author/developer claimed to have been driving around in this car for 3 months with only one 'incident' where he had to override the controller.

    In response to Barbara R. Bell, I do think it will take a while, but people will trust cars to drive themselves in the end just because of the huge convenience factor. Consider that most people feel "out of control" when they first use cruise-control on a car but they don't take too long to adjust and trust that it won't do something unexpected.

  5. f3l1d0 Says:

    …unless its a Toyota Prius

  6. Andrew Says:

    Hava a Prius iTech and love the technology. I agree that those who love driving will still need manual cars and roads on which to do it. This should not be the same space the rest of us use to commute – different spaces for different purposes. Fully automatic commute – great idea!

  7. Steve Kerr Says:

    The Prius is an excellent example of transparent technology – it has regenerative braking and all sort of other 'magic' going on under the hood, but you wouldn't know it as it drives like a 'normal' car. If the Prius 'went wrong' it could readily go out of control and cause major carnage, but it doesn't (so far) because it has been designed to fail safe. This is a fundamental requirement for all safety critical system (i.e. systems that can kill people when they fail). Redundancy of critical system components that could cause big problems will also be mandatory (e.g. front range sensors).

  8. philip Says:

    If someone watches and supervises like big brother from india?
    Image a network fleet of zero emission cars stationary and recharged in car parks. They will come to you like a taxi und you could then take over and drive manually. The car drives byitself only to come to you. The sensors around the car would allow to even increase traffic security! Just think about it. dont we already drive cars virtually -in games like needforspeed? in military operations?
    It would allow collective ownership of a shared zero emission car fleet!

  9. guest Says:

    Why don't they take public transportation more then? Or is it more like automatic transmissions — after a while people realize that they can happily text and apply mascara and get from A to B just fine without the control manual transmission gives.

  10. Steve Kerr Says:

    I think the problem with public transport for many people is the inconvenience and the lack of personal space.

  11. Anwar Says:

    You can blame Google if you've got the traffic accident.

  12. Terry Says:

    Ever tried to contact a person at google? Such a large company with so very very little public face.

  13. mario Says:

    Last week here in Brunswick, Germany:

  14. Yanni Says:

    While we are at it, don't you think that we should add wings to the car as well?

  15. Fabio Says:

    We do:

  16. Fabio Says:

    I just hope that driving manually never gets forbidden to a point that manufacturers will make automatic cars only. Don't want ever to see the day where you have to buy special cars to be used only on tracks.

  17. sittininlab Says:

    But can you trust the Condon Report?

  18. Frank Schifano Says:

    I don't even like cars with automatic transmissions. Forget about a car that drives itself. If I don't want to drive, I'd rather take the train.

  19. Charvak Karpe Says:

    Eric Schmidt "said he couldn’t understand why humans were allowed to drive automobiles at all"
    Maybe he was pointing out that if cars didn't already exist and someone just invented them, there's no way they'd be legalized, given how deadly they are. Giving every physically challenged and/or mentally incompetent person control of a several thousand pound object travelling at 40 mph through the city would sound absurd if we weren't already used to it. And the number of people killed or injured by cars seems far more than any other risk that we are too afraid to tolerate. In Boston, on average one driver dies every day. It amazes me that people will play the lottery or fear things like terror attacks, but will choose to join the club of drivers even if you point out that one of them is going to die each day.

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