As we prepare for another Human Achievement Hour (this Saturday, March 29, 8:30 pm – 9:30 pm), we at CEI are examining some of the latest, greatest innovations that will make the future even freer and more prosperous. One massively transformative technology currently in development is the autonomous vehicle, known more widely as “driverless” or “self-driving” cars. Google’s prototype has been covered extensively by the media, traditional automotive companies such as Bosch and Volkswagen are working hard on their prototypes, and new estimates put the potential societal benefits of autonomous vehicles at $3 trillion per year.
As I’ve noted in the past, we should be “thrilled that a technology that can greatly improve traffic safety, offer disabled people an unprecedented level of personal mobility and fundamentally change the way we travel is so close.” Soon, if you imbibe too much on a night on the town, your car or a rideshare provider’s car will be able to take you home. And thanks to reduced congestion due to optimized driving behavior, we will also enjoy improved local air quality. Whatever your political leanings, you should be excited about our driverless future — unless you’re reflexively and ideologically anti-technology.
In the last 10 years, the technology has progressed a great deal — to the point where it is quite possible that first generation highly automated vehicles will be available to consumers before the decade closes. To understand how we got to the stage of the Google self-driving car, it is instructive to see how far we’ve come. What follows is a brief history of autonomous vehicles that covers the technologies’ developments up until about 10 years ago.
Personal mobility has traditionally required active human monitoring and direction, from walking to riding horseback to bicycling. The physical and cognitive demands of travel have long been recognized, as has the capacity for and costs of human error in transportation. In the late fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a design for a self-propelled cart with programmable steering, which was later compiled in the Atlantic Codex.
Engineering interest in vehicle automation stretches back to the 1920s, when auto ownership first became within reach of middle-class households. Inventor Francis P. Houdina demonstrated a radio-controlled car on the streets of Manhattan in 1925. Houdina’s invention was never treated as anything more than a novelty – although his company’s prominence led to a physical altercation with famed escape artist Harry Houdini, who thought Houdina was capitalizing on their similar names, which resulted in a disorderly conduct charge against Houdini – but the challenge of developing automated vehicles became recognized in research communities.
At the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, General Motors’ interactive Futurama exhibit predicted high-speed automated roadways in 20 years. While GM’s prediction of a driverless world proved premature, its prediction of individual automobile ownership becoming widespread rather than a luxury for the wealthy and upper-middle class — which sounded incredibly bizarre during the Great Depression – proved accurate.