Three nights ago, I was driving home from work and listening to NPR- yes, I listen to NPR, and yes, I am ashamed that I’m that boring- when I heard a report that drivers should expect to see self-driving cars on the road by 2017. Wow! (Double take…Wait!! What??) 2017 is right around the corner.
It turns out that right now the leader in this autonomous revolution is Volvo, who has publicly said that they are planning to put 100 driverless cars on the streets of Gothenburg, Sweden in 2017. These cars will be able to avoid pedestrians, navigate traffic, and park themselves. Of course, Volvo is not the only company with lofty plans. Today, nearly all major automakers have a department dedicated to working on their own versions of the autonomous car.
Just last month, at the Washington Auto Show, Ford also publicly acknowledged their ongoing development by showcasing an automated Ford Fusion Hybrid research car. Ford’s chief operating officer, Mark Fields, said, “In the long term, we see a future of connected cars that communicate with each other and with the world around them to improve safety, reduce traffic congestion and achieve major environmental benefits… Our goal is to offer a level of technology in which a driver is still in control and still able to enjoy the driving experience, but in a better, safer and more efficient way.”
For many, this may seem soon- too soon actually. But, the truth is that this has been a long way coming; we just might not have taken it too seriously. If you don’t believe me, check out this timeline:
1939- The idea of autonomous cars is first introduced by the GM Futurama Exhibit at the World Fair. GM even went on to develop a model highway system in which automated vehicles would dominate the road. That’s pretty serious for 1939, right???
1977- The first autonomous vehicle is developed by Japanese engineer (Damn, Japan beat us; I can’t say I’m surprised, though) Sadayuki Tsugawa. The vehicle could reach 30 kilometers per hour and was capable of processing images on the road. It was, however, aided by an elevated rail.
1979- Designer Hans Moravec comes up with the very first “Smart Vehicle.” It was essentially a simple buggy equipped with a video monitoring device. The vehicle took years to make and was originally in production for NASA who hoped to use it to roam unknown terrain. In the end, it was able to navigate a chair filled room in 5 hours (!!!!????) without any intervention.
1982- Knight Rider, starring cheeseburger eating David Hasselhoff, premieres. One of the featured characters is a fully autonomous car named KITT.
1990– Eight years after Knight Rider, Total Recall (starring governor-nanny seducing-muscle bound-“I’ll be back” repeating-greatest action star of 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger) shows us a frightening version of autonomous cars. They’re called Johnny Cabs.
1995- The “No Hands Across America Tour” commences. During the trip, a 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport traveled from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. According to their journal, the trip was 98.2 percent autonomous and only needed human intervention to avoid minor obstacles (a problem that has been plaguing the movement ever since).
2004- DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) sponsors a grand challenge that awards cash prizes to anybody that bridges the technology gap in the autonomous vehicle world. This helps to spur interest and research in the field.
2011- Nevada becomes the first state to legalize autonomous cars being on the road. Since then, four other states- Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan- have made this legal. Side note: none of these states have legalized the recreational use of weed, though.
Over the years, most people just viewed these events as delusional fantasies and hearsay. It sounded like other conspiracy theories: Elvis is still alive, living fat and happy on his own secluded island. In fact, people actually get angry if they hear too much about this being true. (Don’t believe me? Try bringing it up.) And I can’t really blame them. We grew up driving. It’s in our DNA; they can’t take that away, can they?
Well, maybe they can.
As the days move forward, this transition cannot be denied. In a recent USA Today article, it’s been predicted that annual sales of autonomous cars will balloon to 230,000 vehicles in 2025 and 11.8 million in 2035! “By 2050, IHS predicts, nearly all vehicles — private and commercial — will be self-driving cars (SDCs).”