The dream of driverless cars has changed very little since first introduced in the pages of science fiction novels in 1935. American designer and futurist Norman Bel Geddes created the spectacular Futurama ride for General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair. The ride showcased trench-like lanes that would keep cars apart in their own tracks. The idea was to drive to the freeway normally, then engage the automatic systems and relax until your exit. Other visions of smart roads involved magnetic trails built into the road's surface, or train like rails engaging hidden steel wheels on the inside of each tire.
The introduction of the digital computer promised to makes vehicles smart in ways rarely imagined outside of fiction. One of the first uses was guidance computers for nuclear missiles. By the 1960's, enthusiasts of artificial intelligence (AI) on computers began to imagine cars smart enough to navigate streets on their own. The main challenge was having the machine intelligence make decisions.
In the 1980's, German pioneer Ernst Dickmanns got a Mercedes van to drive hundreds of highway miles autonomously, a tremendous accomplishment given the computing power at the time.
In 2004, the U.S. Defense Advance Research Projects Administration (DARPA) challenged dozens of teams who at the time were working on autonomous vehicles to compete for a $1 million prize. The hope was that a third of military vehicles would drive themselves by 2015.
The first year's teams failed miserably, traveling barely a few miles before crashing. However, the next year multiple cars and trucks were crossing huge swathes of distance. Several factors made the difference: Better software for road following and collision avoidance, and improved radar and laser sensors.
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