A Brief History of Automated Driving — Part One: The Driverless Car Era Began 100 Years Ago
Updated: Jun 2
Easter Sunday in 1900, a photo of Fifth Avenue in New York City shows a single vehicle, which is hard to spot in the leftmost lane, among a sea of horse-drawn carriages. Just 13 years later, a very similar photo shows a single horse-driven cart outnumbered by automobiles.
The mobility industry is currently experiencing three simultaneous revolutions: the electrification of the drivetrain, ubiquitous connectivity of the passenger vehicles, and the replacement of human drivers by autonomous systems. As well as being simultaneous, all three revolutions are heavily impacting mobility just as the revolution from horse-driven carts to self-propelled vehicles did. This is the first of a short series of blog posts that attempts to capture the history of the autonomous vehicles from fiction over research and development to productization.
Inventions in the fields of avionics and radio engineers sparked early visions of automated street vehicles: In 1914, the first airplane autopilot based on a gyroscopic stabilizer was demonstrated in France and radio-control for ships was invented in the 1920s.
A radio-controlled car was shown for the first time in October 1921 in Dayton, Ohio by RCA. The three-wheeled device was controlled wirelessly from another vehicle with radio equipment. A similar radio-controlled vehicle was shown in 1925 on Fifth Avenue in New York. The vehicle was closely followed by a second vehicle containing radio transmitters and an operator. Image: World Wide Wireless, Published but Radio Corporation of America, 2022.
The dream of automated vehicles is almost as old as the debut of the car itself. And it started with fiction. In 1918, a magazine already showed a self-driving streetcar, as being “a motorist’s dream: a car that is controlled by a set of pushbuttons.” The article thinks that "... in the future the car with the steering wheel will be as obsolete as the car with the hand pump for gas or oil is today!"
In 1933, Popular Mechanics reported “They’ve gone Automatic,” arguing that recent breakthroughs such as automatic garage door openers and power steering were the first steps towards fully automated cars; “it would be straightforward to transform an automobile to start itself at the appropriate time, open the garage door, and back itself out of the driveway.”
The 1935 film “The Safest Place,” Chevrolet predicted that “if the manufacturer could equip every car with an automatic driving mechanism, the car would always do just what it should do when it got out on the road. With such a driving control, the car would not pull away from the curb without signaling or looking back for oncoming traffic. With such a driving control, the car would keep inline instead of weaving in and out of traffic. With such control, it would always get into the proper lane before turning. It would always obey boulevard stop signs. With an automatic driving mechanism, the car would stop before cutting into traffic. It wouldn’t pass other cars in dangerous curves, and it would always come to a stop before crossing a railroad.”
In 1938, Popular Science in the article “Highways of the Future” predicted that in 50 years, collisions would be impossible, car to car communication would work with infrared light, and electric cables would control the car’s speed and eventually would also take over the car’s steering.
At the 1939 World Fair in New York, General Motors presented in the Futurama exhibit their vision for 1960, which showed automated vehicles on multi-lane highways to visitors, 17 years before the Federal Highway Act authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways across the US.
This video, To New Horizons, the 1939 Futurama film, shows pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by General Motors. It documents the "Futurama" exhibit in GM's "Highways and Horizons" pavilion at the World's Fair, which looks ahead to the "wonder world of 1960."
In 1953, Mechanix Illustrated asked, “Why Don’t We Have… Crash-Proof Highways … with automatic pilots to take the wheel for trip-weary, accident-prone drivers? If an inventor should offer the motorist an automatic pilot for his car, consider the tremendous safety value of such a device. The human element would be eliminated from driving. Our highways would become virtually crash-proof.” The article anticipated a system based on magnetic detection for lateral control and radar for distance keeping.
In 1956, American power companies advertised that “one day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices embedded in the road. Highways will be made safe - by electricity! No traffic jams … no collisions … no driver fatigue.”
For the 1956 Motorama auto show, General Motors produced this musical short, "Key to the Future," which predicted self-driving cars in the far-off future of 1976. In 1958, Popular Science reported that “the car in your future will be run by black boxes while you watch” is under development by GM and RCA.
Firebird III on display at the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962. The car would be guided along a road cable, and car to infrastructure communication would control the car’s longitudinal movement. Image: Seattle Municipal Archives.
The Firebird IV was not a functional vehicle like its predecessors, but a concept focussing toward the day that automobiles would be controlled on highways not by the driver, but by automatic programmed guidance systems that would ensure absolute safety at more than twice the speed possible on expressways of the day. Control would then be restored to the driver once exiting the highway and continuing on surface streets.
In 1967, Popular Science reported that “a U.S.-backed $100,000 study at a world-famous lab is working out the design of a commuter’s car of tomorrow--and it’s electric-tracked guideway to the city and back.”
Walt Disney, then, took imagination to the next level in the episode “Magic Highway U.S.A.” of the 1950s TV series “The Magical World of Disney,” predicting radar sensors, night vision, traffic guidance systems, and other futuristic vehicle features. Cars were continued to be depicted as being able to think and feel, making their own decisions: in late 1968, Disney created Herbie, the Love Bug, a vehicle that had “a mind of his own and [was] capable of driving himself”. Arguably, the most capable fictional robot car in the 1980s was the vehicle KITT in the TV series Knight Rider. KITT had the ability to drive itself and possessed a scanner that allowed the vehicle to “see” the environment. More self-driving cars appeared in Christine in 1983, Batman in 1989, Total Recall in 1990, Demolition Man in 1993, the Fifth Element in 1997, and I, Robot in 2004.
The driverless car era began 100 years ago already. Inspired by advances in gyroscopic stabilizer, radio, and radar technology, magazines, reports, and movies describe the vision of automobiles that would drive themselves. Many of these sources anticipated technology readiness in approximately 20 years in the future, an apparent time constant in the history of automated vehicles. While self-driving technology research started in the late 1950s—to be covered in the next post in this series—it took 50 more years to overcome the mysterious 20-year hurdle.
I have been working on autonomous vehicles and driver assistance systems for 23 years.
I started to collect background material during my Ph.D. work from 1998 to 2001. Ten years ago, I started lecturing ME302B at Stanford University and collected even more material that I then compiled into a presentation. I was often asked to write this down instead of just talking about it.