Technically, it could be argued that the first self-driving vehicles were, in fact, boats. A method that connected the small sail at the front, to the tiller at the back via a pulley, meant that when the wind blew, the boat steered by itself.
Obviously, land-bound motorised vehicles needed to be constantly guided by the driver, but in the 1920s, that didn’t stop people experimenting with self-steering ideas. Not unsurprisingly, the hoped-for safety benefits failed to materialise.
At the 1939 World’s Fair, an exhibit by General Motors showed a huge, motorised model of an American city in which the designers had imagined dispatchers directing thousands of self-driving vehicles’ movements by radio – yet by the 1950s, wires fixed in the road surface had replaced radio as the preferred technology. However, whilst there was a theoretical feasibility to the radio and wire approach, the prohibitive costs, as well as the growing popularity of actual driving, made it a fairly short-lived and unsuccessful undertaking.
In the 1960s the advent of computer technology enabled the development of autonomous vehicles that really could independently drive themselves. Robots, using cameras to see and computers to navigate, managed to avoid obstacles and follow the white lines.
In the late ‘70s, thanks to improvements in image processing and core processing units, the first self-driving passenger vehicle, travelling at up to 20mph, was tested in Japan. Then, in the 1980s, a German university professor designed his own self-driving gadgets and successfully fitted them to a Mercedes-Benz van.
As software improved and computers got faster competition around the world increased, and by the end of the 1990s Japan, Germany and the United States had all completed cross-country trips using automated control vehicles.
Later, pioneering use of processing road imagery and the emergence of AI sped up autonomous vehicle development in the early 2000s to the point where commercial self-driving vehicles seemed to be a genuine possibility.
By 2009, Google was working on a new self-driving car project which sped up efforts in other companies, and during 2016/2017 around 80 billion dollars was invested in self-driving tech.
In 2020, driverless mobility is really, nearly, here, and by the middle of this century, judging by the current speed of technological developments, vehicles driven by actual people may appear to be a quaint relic of a bygone age.
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