Though pilot tests are a new phenomenon, dreams of a market for self-driving cars date all the way back to the 1920s. In 1925, inventor Frances Houdina created a radio-controlled vehicle, much to the public’s fascination. Over 40 years later, John McCarthy (a founding father of artificial intelligence) described the idea of “automatic chauffeurs.” He theorized a future in which a computer would pilot a vehicle toward its destination.
In 2016, some of these ideas began to move from theory to reality. In that year alone, big players such as Ford, Mercedes, Apple, and Google, among others, invested an estimated $46 billion into researching and developing their own fleets of autonomous vehicles.
Some key milestones in this ongoing, increasingly-crowded race include:
Self-parking: At the start of the new millennium, car manufactures began exploring vehicular autonomy by introducing self-parking systems. Using advanced sensors, Toyota’s 2003 Prius and Lexus’s LS Sedan offered automatic parking assistance, while Ford produced the Active Park Assist in 2009. A series of manufacturers have improved on the technology in the years since.
Google launches Waymo: In 2009, Google launched its secret driverless car project, Waymo. Through the Waymo program, Google has seen its autonomous cars drive over 300,000 miles without a collision or system failure. After five years of tests, they unveiled images of their prototype. Their proposed car lacks a steering wheel, gas pedal, and a brake pedal.
Car manufacturers catch up: By 2013, automotive giants like GM and Toyota had joined the race for driverless cars in earnest. Certain manufacturers, Mercedes for example, have sought opportunities to refine existing technologies. These have included features designed to prevent accidents and keep drivers in their intended line. Other, more ambitious, competitors have set their sights on introducing fully driverless cars by the early 2020s. Competition has also begun to arise around certain self-driving business opportunities. Ford and Toyota are just two of the brands looking to pioneer the field of autonomous pizza delivery.
The first fatalities: The first fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle occurred during the first weeks of 2016 in China's Heibei province. The first fatality on American soil came just a few months later. Both incidents involved Tesla Model S cars and were described as "scarily similar" by Quartz. Model S drives into a tractor trailer. In 2018, the first pedestrian death put Uber's self-driving trials to a brief stop. These crashes have quickly turned the conversation around driverless vehicles from an enthusiastic one to an uneasy one. The public is understandably apprehensive about the technology and its (seemingly inherent) risks. According to AAA's 2018 Vehicle Technology Survey, nearly three quarters of American drivers would not trust an autonomous car.
Despite the public's concerns, the automotive industry’s race towards a driverless future does not appear to be slowing down. Last year, technology company Nvidia revealed its driverless car chip, Xavier. Partnered with Volkswagen, Nvidia’s chip will be the first to fuse driverless technology with artificial intelligence, beating out Toyota’s work with the MIT and Stanford labs. Such milestones suggest that industry leaders are more than capable of navigating around bumps in the road. It's unlikely the automotive industry can outpace its most ambitious, but the prospect of sharing the road with self-driving cars and trucks is no longer the stuff of science fiction.