The Future of the Self-Driving Automobile

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The Future of the Self-Driving Automobile

The idea of a car that can drive itself is not new.  At the 1933 World's Fair, General Motors sponsored an exhibit that showed cars that were powered by an electric grid in the roadway and guided by radio control.  But it was a long way from reality at that time.  It wasn't until 1977 that Japanese engineers at the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory actually built a car that could drive by itself.  It went 20 miles an hour and followed white markings on a dedicated circuit.1 Mercedes-Benz built a robotic van that ran at about 50 miles an hour on empty streets.  It couldn't handle traffic, but it inspired the European Commission to fund the development of the EUREKA Prometheus Project for a driverless car, starting in 1987. 

DARPA entered the fray in the 1980s with its Autonomous Land Vehicle project and succeeded in demonstrating the first car that could follow roads using laser radar, computer vision, and robotic control at about 15 miles an hour. 

In 1987, Hughes Research Labs demonstrated a terrain-following vehicle that could navigate ravines and steep slopes.  At the same time, Daimler-Benz built a pilotless vehicle that drove more than 1,000 kilometers in Paris traffic at normal highway speeds, with just a few human interventions necessary.

In 1995 and '96, the driverless car was refined significantly with a Mercedes-Benz driving from Munich to Copenhagen and back at highway speeds on the German Autobahn, with human intervention only involved in 5 percent of the trip.  It passed other cars employing its own decision-making routines.  In one segment of the trip, it drove 80 miles without any human input.

In 1996, the University of Parma began a project called ARGO that used a Lancia to follow the white lines on a highway.  The car drove itself about 1,000 miles in six days, 94 percent autonomously.

In the meantime, DARPA and the U.S. Army continued their collaborative efforts to develop driverless vehicles for military applications.  In 2001, they demonstrated a vehicle that could navigate successfully off-road, through rough terrain.  They also showed that teams of vehicles could coordinate their movements by communicating with one another.

Then, in 2002, DARPA introduced its Grand Challenge.  International teams were assembled to enter autonomous vehicles that raced off-road in depopulated suburbs.  In 2007, the DARPA challenge was held on a course that ran through a city-like setting.  Initially, 89 teams applied to compete in the event, which was held on the grounds of what used to be George Airforce Base in Victorville, CA. 

Through qualifying competition, the list of entrants was whittled down to 35 invitees to the national qualification event which lasted 8 days...

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