The Self-Driving Milestones

16 October


What came first? Smart Highways or Self-driving cars? And how long ago did the first idea of either arise? 

Before his time

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Self-propelled cart c.1500

Leonardo Da Vinci was already dreaming up the mechanics for a cart that could move without being pushed or pulled. A distinct precursor to the car, it could also be the first robot.

Under the sea

Whitehead Torpedo 1868

Robert Whitehead’s weapon of war, this torpedo can propel itself underwater several hundred yards on the same depth, thanks to a pressurisation system labelled “The Secret”.

Up, up and away

Mechanical Mike aircraft autopilot 1933

Used by Wiley Post when travelling 13,000 miles around the world, Gyroscope Co.’s long-range aircraft autopilot system interfaced with the controls, ensuring accurate direction. Gyroscopes remain an integral part of autopilot technology today.

Smooth riding

Teetor Cruise Control 1945

Tied of bumpy journeys, an engineer developed the first cruise control function using a mechanical throttle that set the vehicle’s speed. The invention was commercialised in 1958 and continues to influence mechanics today.


Smart highways 1939-1950’s

While some were making cars autonomous, others focused on special freeways. Showcased through 1939’s Futurama and in the 1950’s, these were set up like railways to guide cars safely along them.


Stanford Cart 1961

James Adams dreamt up a remote-controlled lunar rover. His solution to overcome the 2.5 second delay between instructions given on Earth to the Moon led to the first truly self-driving wheeled vehicle; The Cart. It’s successor technologies owe a lot to this vital innovation.

Cruising in comfort

Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering 1977

Japan-based Tsukuba produced an autonomous passenger vehicle that recognised street markings using two vehicle-mounted cameras while travelling nearly 20 miles per hour.

Keep an eye on the road

VaMoRs 1987

Ernst Dickmanns’ sedan (VaMoRs) used a bank of cameras and 60 micro-processing modules to detect objects and navigate Germany’s famous Autobahn at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. This helps self-driving vehicles today identify potential hazards.

Look Ma, no hands!


Carnegie Mellon University’s ALVINN – a retrofitted Army ambulance – drove without any human interaction. ALVINN, which stands for Autonomous Land Vehicle In a Neural Network was ‘narrowly intelligent’, meaning it didn’t use maps to navigate. Many of its creators worked – and work for – Uber and Google.

Driven by Drone

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator 1995

Drones developed alongside self-driving vehicles. The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator piloted over global hotspots for 14 hours at a time for over 20 years. The Predator’s technology is influencing cars, including radar and thermal imaging cameras that can see through the night, smoke or clouds.

Heating up

DARPA Challenges 2004-2013

In 2004, DARPA, The U.S. Department of Defense’s research arm, challenged vehicles to self-navigate 150 miles of desert roadway. While no car succeeded, the 2007 challenge simulated a 60-mile long urban environment with 4 cars completing the route in the allotted 6-hour time limit.

The Future is now

Tesla Autopilot 2015

Enabling hands-free controls and freeway driving, the most exciting part of Tesla’s “Autopilot” semi-autonomous feature was that they delivered it in a single software update to their Model S customers.

What next?

What is exciting is the fact that businesses, governments and academia are all coming together and utilising their skills to herald the next steps needed to a truly autonomous motor system.

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