There Were Driverless Cars In 1925? A History Of The Intelligent Car
by Ed Scott
For many years, the idea of an artificially intelligent car was confined to the realms of science-fiction. From cars that can park themselves to driverless vehicles, the crossover between pop culture’s famous clever cars and today’s reality is a line that’s becoming more and more blurred.
Advancements in technology have brought us closer and closer to the sci-fi understanding of the intelligent car. The future of clever motors is quite literally now – but how did we get here? To answer that very question, we’re going to take a brief look at the history of the intelligent car – it spans back further than you might think…
Artificially intelligent cars, for better or for worse (by which we mean Stephen King’s Christine, of course), have existed in film and TV practically since the rise of the modern sci-fi genre.
The first motor that everyone’s mind naturally jumps to when you’re talking about clever cars is, of course, Knight Rider’s KITT. The car’s first embodiment – the Knight Industries Two Thousand – boasted artificial intelligence, an Alpha Circuit (its fictional control system), protective shell and turbo boost capabilities, amongst many other features. KITT was self-aware, and was capable of communicating with humans – along with a personality of its own.
Though KITT might be the first example that springs to mind, it was in fact Herbie that was the first intelligent car to grace our screens. With his original debut taking place in ‘The Love Bug’ in 1968, the Volkswagen Beetle was ahead of his time in terms of independent motion. Though, it wasn’t technology that animated Herbie – it was, in true Disney style, love that brought him to life.
Along with KITT and Herbie, the concerning Christine, Transformers’ Bumblebee and children’s TV favourite Brum are all examples of the varied way that we’ve portrayed intelligent cars throughout the late 20th century – but how do these examples compare to reality?
Early 20th Century
The notion of the intelligent car is something that’s intrigued manufacturers long before the means to create fictional stories with them came about. In fact, the origins of the autonomous, driverless car span back to the 1920s.
In 1925, a driverless radio-controlled car negotiated the streets of New York. Houdina Radio control demonstrated the capabilities of their project, the ‘Linrrican Wonder’. The car was a 1926 Chandler, which had been equipped with an antenna and many tiny motors to steer the vehicle remotely.
In the 1930s, car manufacturers showed the first real interest in the idea of a more intelligent motor, and began the process of including circuits in roads for electric cars to traverse. This idea was showcased at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Late 20th Century
1953 saw the development of miniature cars that successfully followed a wire track along the floor of an RCA Labs development space. Later, this was replicated in a full-size version. Though not tested on a functioning highway, engineers built a replica highway in the laboratory. Around this time, other electronic and vehicle manufacturer firms joined the idea that electric tracks were the best way to have driverless transport on a large scale. In 1960, Ohio State University launched a project to create driverless cars that actually would run along electronic devices embedded in the road, stating that this technology could be in use within just 15 years.
Obviously, that’s not what happened – despite the fact that multiple studies proved that the implementation of this technology would increase the road capacity of the British motorway system by 50 per cent, as well as preventing around 40 per cent of accidents. In fact, the late 60s and early 70s saw miles of the technologically advanced cable laid beneath the Slough and Reading stretch of the M4 allowed researchers to test the driverless technology with a Citroen DS19.
By the 1980s, a Mercedes-Benz robotic van had achieved 39 MPH without a driver on an empty street – but made use of vision-guidance, rather than a pre-laid track. Later, the ALV (Autonomous Land Vehicle) project in the States made use of remote sensing technology, Lidar, and computer vision as well as autonomous robotic control to drive a vehicle. Here, the idea that cars could effectively drive themselves – rather than following a hidden track – really came into play.
The 1990s was a massive era for the progression of driverless, autonomous cars. Between ’91 and ’95, developments in both Europe and America resulted in more and more successful occurrences of a car getting to its destination, unharmed, without a driver.
Amongst many triumphant trials, an S Class Mercedes Benz travelled from Munich to Copenhagen – and back again – with the car ‘driving’ for 95 per cent of the journey. In the same year, the Carnegie Mellon University Navlab project managed a 3,100 mile journey with 98% car autonomy.
Throughout the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s, more and more projects successfully travelled more and more miles – with less human input. The US Government joined the robot car party, and developed models that could negotiate trickier terrain. By 2009, Google had begun its own research and development of driverless cars – though the project was only announced in 2012, three years after initial research began.
Early 21st Century
Today, the notion of the autonomous car has now become a reality. From everyday additions to our vehicles like rear-parking sensors, dynamic cruise control and automatic brakes to entirely driverless cars, major vehicle manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of what was once considered just science fiction.
Mercedes-Benz has even released an S-Class saloon that includes a radar system on all four corners, the front and the rear, as well as cameras on the front and rear windscreens. All of these elements combine to create a 3D map of sorts that the car then travels through.
In similar – but also radically different – research, you have the fleet of Google’s self-driving cars. Ten Toyota Priuses have covered over 300,000 miles of Californian road and have – so far- had zero incidents. This is down to Google Chauffeur – the car’s software – which is fuelled with data received from roof-mounted scanners, cameras and sensors to provide an entirely accurate description of the vehicle’s surroundings. Already, those with disabilities that have limited their ability to drive have made use of Google’s technological breakthrough, as proven by Steve Mahan – a blind man who travelled in one of Google’s cars to get to a pre-defined destination in 2013.
What’s next for intelligent cars?
It’s hard to imagine the next steps that need to be taken when it comes to driverless vehicles without, again, sounding like a plot line to a futuristic sci-fi film. The next logical stage would be to increase the number of driverless vehicles on the road – but that doesn’t come without concern.
This is where the Intelligent Car Initiative comes into play. The European Commission set up this policy framework to better implement intelligent standards that should exist within cars to ensure vehicles on the road are as safe as they can be. Founded in 2006, the initiative most famously established the anti-lock braking system and strives to get new, helpful driving technologies into vehicles faster.
So, though we may not be driven around by our cars any time soon, rest assured that elements of car intelligence will become more and more popular, and should help to improve road safety. We might not be able to buy our own, real KITT in the near future, but that day is most definitely getting closer.
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