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From Concept to Reality: The Impressive History of Self-Driving Cars

Self Driving Car

As recently as 10 years ago, if you had asked the average consumer about self-driving cars, they probably would have described them as something from a faraway future. But today self-driving vehicles have become a reality, and many people have probably seen one traveling the streets of their neighborhood.
Autonomous driving technology has made incredible progress in the last decade; even the last three to five years have seen exciting innovations in the industry. The road ahead holds the promise of even further advancements, and autonomous vehicle technology still has plenty of room to grow.
Looking back on the nearly 100-year history of self-driving cars provides an interesting view into their early beginnings and illustrates the thrilling pace of new developments we can expect in the future.
According to Mike Abelson, the VP of Global Strategy at General Motors, GM predicts that the next five years will bring more innovation in the industry than the last 50.
The big thinkers of the auto industry have learned a lot from the history of driverless cars, which dates back further than many people would expect. Surprisingly, the self-driving car timeline begins in the early half of the 1900s, with many fascinating twists and turns along the way.


The first radio-controlled “driverless car” is developed and demonstrated by Houdina Radio Control in 1925. The “American Wonder” car traveled New York City streets, amazing onlookers. Houdina Radio Control’s founder, Francis Houdina, is often credited as the person who invented the driverless car, at least its earliest conception.


At the 1939 World’s Fair, General Motors sponsors an exhibit developed by Normal Bel Geddes that detailed radio-controlled electric cars that would use electromagnetic fields embedded in highways for propulsion. Bel Geddes predicts self-driving vehicles will be a reality by the year 1960.


In 1957, RCA Labs constructs a 400-foot stretch of highway in Nebraska embedded with special detector circuits that were used to send signals to their version of a self-driving car. General Motors also develops and exhibits its Firebird vehicle, which uses an electronic guide system for navigation. Unfortunately, a lack of funding stopped these projects in their tracks.


At this point in driverless car history, the concept of autonomous vehicles begins to gain steam. The US Bureau of Public Roads begins officially considering experimenting with electronically-controlled highways. Researchers start to explore the specific intelligent logic that would be required for a vehicle to operate autonomously, marking a turning point in the development of smart cars.


The Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab in Japan develops a break-through prototype vehicle that is generally considered the first stand-alone self-driving vehicle. No road technology is required for the car; rather, it uses a unique form of computerized intelligence that analyzes the environment using a built-in camera and makes driving maneuvers based on that data.


Mercedes-Benz debuts a robotic van designed by Ernst Dickmanns, a passionate developer of driverless car technology. His vehicle manages to achieve a top speed of 39 miles per hour on the streets of Germany, spurring on further developments like the Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV) funded by DARPA and Carnegie Mellon University’s use of neural networks as a guiding force for autonomous vehicles.


In 1991, the United States government turns its attention to the blossoming possibilities of the driverless car industry, passing a bill that directs the USDOT to develop an automated highway and vehicle pairing by the year 1997. Funding for the task is upwards of $90 million, and key players in the automotive industry, such as General Motors, Toyota, and Honda take part in the project.


Over the span of several years, the DARPA Grand Challenge offers cash prizes to engineers who can successfully develop a self-driving car that can prove itself on various courses in different environments. In 2009, the very early development of the Google driverless car is taking place behind the scenes at the tech giant, yet to be announced to the general public.


The last several years have seen the snowballing of autonomous car technology, with big names like Google, GM, Audi, Nissan, Tesla and many others getting in on the action. Google begins its now well-known driverless car testing on public roads, successfully logging millions of miles. Limited autonomous technology, like autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist become more common in consumer vehicles, taking drivers one step closer to an autonomous vehicle experience. Companies like S-E-A contribute to the evolving world of self-driving cars by working with OEMs to test their autonomous technology before it is deployed.
This brief timeline of the history of self-driving cars illustrates just how far they have come. From the early 1900’s science fiction to the present reality, autonomous vehicle technology is ever-evolving.
In the next 20 years, you can expect vehicles to become increasingly more autonomous, with completely self-driving cars possibly available to the public as early as the 2030s. If you want to be a part of this wave of the future, now is the time to join. Contact S-E-A to learn more about the newest developments in self-driving vehicle testing and take your first step into the future.

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