A Peek into The Birth of Self-Driving Cars
By Supriti Malhotra

Self-driving cars have for decades been the projected fantasy of science fiction. The world’s first self-propelled car made its appearance a few centuries ago, at the hands of one of the world’s greatest inventors, Leonardo da Vinci. In 1478, Leonardo da Vinci designed a car which could be powered by ‘coiled springs inside the tambours’, according to Prof. Paolo Galluzzi of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence, Italy.

Since then, the world has been enamored by the idea of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous cars made their way to the streets as early as 1925, when Francis P. Houdina, of Houdina Radio Control Co., developed a radio-controlled driver-less car by equipping a 1926 Chandler with a transmitting antenna. Since 1935, self-driving cars have been featuring in popular culture, including science fiction and avenues like an advertisement for America’s Electric Light and Power Companies in the 1950s. At the 1939’s World Fair in New York, General Motors’ Futurama exhibit featured a ride on audio equipped chairs through a 35,738 sq. ft. model of the imaginary world of 1960 with automated highways.

Many consider the Stanford Cart as the first step towards autonomous vehicles. Constructed by James L. Adams in 1961, while working on Project Prospector for NASA, the Stanford Cart was fitted with a video camera and remote control. In 1977, S. Tsugawa built the first self-driving car, along with his coworkers at Japan’s Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory. Using analog computer technology for signal processing, equipped with two cameras, the driverless car was capable of processing images of the road ahead and achieved speeds up to 30 km/hr.

The pioneer of autonomous vehicles, however, was German aerospace engineer Ernst Dickmanns. While working at the German Aerospace Center, Dickmanns began developing the idea of ‘vision’ for computers and mobile units, by accessing satellite remote sensing systems. In the 1980s, Dickmanns launched a series of projects focusing on his ‘vision’ at the Bundeswehr University Munich. In 1986, the VaMoRs was unveiled, a 5-ton Mercedes-Benz van, equipped with saccadic vision, eight 16-bit Intel microprocessors, Kalman filters, and a bunch of sensors and software. Subsequently, the world’s largest development program for autonomous driving vehicles and technologies, the Eureka PROMETHEUS (Program for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety) was launched on October 1, 1986, in association with Daimler-Benz.

Since the 1980s, the drive for autonomous vehicles has sped up exponentially. The DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles was launched in 2004, and Anthony Levandowski, a Berkley graduate, participated with the world’s first autonomous motorcycle, the Ghost Rider.

In 2005, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google’s Street View, led the Stanford team to win the DARPA challenge with its Volkswagen Touareg, nicknamed Stanley. Levandowski, who was also participating in an improved version of Ghost Rider, met Thrun for the first time.

Along with Berkeley colleagues, Andrew Schultz and Pierre-Yves Droz, Levandowski founded 510 Systems after graduating from Berkeley. 510 Systems developed a smart camera that could process data from digital cameras, GPS units and sensors to code positional data on the camera’s images. Their camera was sold to Google to form part of the initial Google Street View system. Levandowski and his team pioneered the use of Lidar (lasers that function like radar) for mobile map-making.

Thrun joined Google in 2007 and recruited Levandowski. A year later, Levandowski was invited by a producer of ‘Prototype This!’ to build a self-driving car.

‘Google was very supportive of the idea, but they absolutely did not want their name associated with it,’ Levandowski says, ‘They were worried about a Google engineer building a car that crashes and kills someone.’

Levandowski set up Anthony’s Robots, and along with fellow colleagues from Berkeley, built the Pribot, a retrofitted Toyota Prius linked to a guidance system. The Pribot was the first unmanned car to be allowed on American streets, and traveled through San Francisco’s Embarcadero route, crossing the Bay Bridge to Treasure Island.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were incredibly excited and coaxed Levandowski to develop the Pribot in Google X, a launchpad to ‘moonshot’ technologies, co-headed by Thrun. After a few years of developing five autonomous Priuses, Google acquired Anthony’s Robots and 510 Systems.

Google quietly began developing driverless hybrids of Priuses and an Audi TT, even running test drives unknown to the public, until a 2010 New York Times report revealed Google’s ‘self-driving car initiative.’

Since then, Google’s autonomous vehicle project has focused on improving safety, given that Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in eleven collisions; they’ve clocked two million miles in self-driving mode since 2014.

In 2015, Google launched its two-seater prototype, steered by sensors and software with a speed limit of 25 mph. Initial prototypes for test drives include a removable steering wheel, and accelerator and brake pedals for emergencies.

According to Dmitri Dolgov, software lead for Google’s self-driving project, ‘We’re not building a car, we’re building the driver.’

Experimenting with cars such as the Prius, Lexus, Fiat Chrysler and Google’s own prototype, Dmitri Dolgov is developing self-driving technology, which includes sensors and software for improved performance. The self-driving cars navigate using 3D laser-mapping, GPS, and light-sensitive radar (Lidar), along with sensors that can automatically detect and respond to cyclists’ hand signals, and even detect police and emergency vehicles nearby.

Although they were one of the first in the field, Google now has competition from many others who have jumped on the self-driving car bandwagon. These include Tesla Motors with its ‘autopilot’ feature for the Model S, Audi, Apple, Nissan, Ford, Jaguar, Land-Rover and Volkswagen amongst many others.

Singapore based nuTonomy has launched the world’s first ‘self-driving’ taxi service. Levandowski and Otto co-founder and fellow former Googler Lior Ron, wanting to bring self-driving technology sooner to the public, have joined hands with Uber, launching driverless trucks. While Uber’s fleet of self-driving trucks has been launched recently, Google plans to release its self-driving cars in 2018.

Image Courtesy:
Image 1: https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar
Image 2: https://www.google.com/selfdrivingcar
Image 3: https://www.daimler.com
Image 4: http://americanhistory.si.edu/

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