@ Advertising Archive/Courtesy Everett Collection

The evolution of autonomous driving

Mar 9, 2021

The seats hum quietly as they glide towards the rear of the car. They latch into the leather-covered rear wall to form a relaxing lounge while the driver becomes a passenger and the steering wheel disappears into the dash. The navigation displays also move into position and bring up the Netflix menu. Humanity has been working on this vision for almost half a century. Below we outline the stages in the evolution of automated driving.

1925 – American Wonder unsettles New York

New Yorkers were rubbing their eyes when a driverless car from the Chandler Motor Company made its way around Manhattan. Its inventor was the electrical engineer Francis Houdina, who was trailing behind the automated car with a remote control. Technically it was not a self-driving vehicle. There were no computers back then. The car had a radio antenna to receive commands for the electric motors operating the steering, brakes and gas pedal. During the premiere there were several near-collisions.

1939 – Vision of the future

The designer Norman Bel Geddes was commissioned by General Motors to create a pavilion for the World Fair. It was given the name Futurama, and presented a model city demonstrating the future of autonomous traffic with intelligent guidance systems. Electric coils embedded in the road surface and electromagnetic fields were to make the idea workable.

@ General Motors

1945 – The very first driver assistance system

The blind engineer Ralph Teetor had to be driven everywhere. His bad experiences with chauffeurs caused him to apply for a patent on a cruise control device. A Chrysler Imperial first used the technology in 1958. In Europe, Mercedes-Benz introduced the first speed regulator in 1962.

1968 – The driverless “Stroke Eight”

Many people are sure to remember 1968 – the peak of the student movement, the Prague Spring, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. There were also developments in technology: the first “Jumbo Jet,” a Boeing 747, took off, and the first dot matrix printer appeared on the market. Beer became available in six-packs, and in Jeversen in northern Germany, a Mercedes-Benz car drove round a test track with help from engineers but no driver at all. This 250 Automatic/8 – also known as the “Stroke Eight” – had been equipped with electromechanical steering and a radio system by engineers from Continental. The fenders sported several antennas, and the trunk contained the control electronics and an electro-pneumatic braking system. The vehicle followed a wire on the road surface. With the aid of sensors, the car’s electronics detected whether it was on track and corrected the steering automatically if necessary. Commands were sent from the control station to the car via the guide wire: brake, accelerate, sound the horn.

1977 – The car can see

Sadayuki Tsugawa’s team at the Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory in Japan presents the first autonomous vehicle to the public. It has two cameras that produce images of the road and can analyze them in real time. At a top speed of 30 km/h the vehicle is able to follow the road markings by itself.

The 1980s – A German with a revolutionary approach

The scientist Ernst Dieter Dickmanns is still regarded as a pioneer of autonomous driving, even today. Dickmanns was a professor at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich and he developed the technology for a 4-D model. The dimension of time was added to the evaluation of 3-D images. Dickmanns began his work with a Mercedes 508 D van carrying sensors and cameras. A gigantic computing center was installed in the cargo space. “VaMoRs” (a German acronym meaning “experimental vehicle for autonomous mobility and computer vision”) was able to drive independently and reached speeds of almost 100 km/h. For safety’s sake, a human driver was seated in the vehicle.

The science project "Prometheus" started as a test car based on a Mercedes-Benz transporter. @ Daimler AG
The science project "Prometheus" started as a test car based on a Mercedes-Benz transporter. @ Daimler AG

1994 – 1,000 kilometers of autonomous driving

As part of the EU’s “Prometheus” project, Ernst Dieter Dickmanns built more experimental systems in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz. They achieved remarkable success. The S-Class 500 vehicles used could stay in lane unaided, drive in convoy and the even overtake other vehicles autonomously. The highlight of the robot cars’ achievements was driving around 1,000 kilometers from Germany to Paris, including freeways, at speeds of up to 130 km/h. The adaptive cruise control and the emergency braking assistant emerged from this project.

1998 – Braking by an invisible hand

Shortly before the millennium, the first series vehicle with long range radar appears on the market. Daimler offers its “Distronic” adaptive cruise control in the W 220 series S-Class. Based on radar signals, the system brakes and accelerates the car in the range from 40 to 160 km/h so that it maintains a safe distance from the vehicle in front.

2005 – Autonomous rally

At the DARPA Grand Challenge, sponsored by the US Defense Department, vehicles drive autonomously across the Mojave Desert. Only four out of more than 20 cars that started manage to complete the sandy trek. A VW Touareg from researchers at Stanford University is the first to reach the finish line.

The egg shaped Google Car on its way through Austin in Texas. The unconventional twoseater has no steering wheel, pedalry or safety driver. @ Waymo LLC
The egg shaped Google Car on its way through Austin in Texas. The unconventional twoseater has no steering wheel, pedalry or safety driver. @ Waymo LLC

2012 – Autonomous in Las Vegas

Google’s fleets of self-driving cars have total freedom on the roads in Nevada. Vehicles were demonstrated on the busy Las Vegas Strip prior to approval. But they are not fully autonomous. The cars brake, steer and accelerate by themselves. Yet there is still always a driver at the wheel. At the end of 2014, Google unveils the first car it developed with no steering wheel or pedals. The small, egg-shaped car attracts international attention. Waymo emerged from the project.

2014 – Step by step towards autonomous driving

There are five levels in the development of autonomous vehicles. The categorization was introduced by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and describes which of the driver’s tasks the vehicle can and may take over. The levels go from 0, with no assistance systems at all, to Level 5, which describes fully autonomous driving.

The driver is always in control of the vehicle and must be aware of the traffic situation at all times. Individual assistance systems provide support with certain driving functions.

Partial automation means that the car can perform some tasks autonomously some of the time – without human intervention. Under certain defined conditions, the vehicle stays in lane, applies the brakes and accelerates by itself.

Cars can perform certain driving tasks independently and without human intervention, although only for a limited period and under suitable conditions specified by the manufacturer.

At this level, the technical systems perform all driving tasks autonomously. The passengers are allowed to sleep, use their smartphones or read a newspaper, but they can take control of the steering wheel again at any time.

This is the highest and last level of autonomous driving. The system now has complete control of the car. There is no driver, only passengers.

2019: Driverless parking service

A vehicle maneuvers around the parking garage as if under remote control. All on its own. The Automated Valet Parking function from Bosch is the first automated system (Level 4) that takes over not only the tiresome job of looking for a parking spot, but also that of actually parking the vehicle. The driver simply leaves the car at a drop-off point. The intelligent infrastructure and the vehicle’s technology guide it to a free space and park it there.

2020 – Space for autonomous driving

Germany’s “test site” goes into operation between Hildesheim, Hannover, Brunswick and Wolfsburg. It comprises 280 kilometers on the freeways A2, A39 and A391, and several federal and rural roads. Self-driving vehicles are subjected to real-life testing – constantly monitored and with an expert in the driver’s seat.

Make way for the people mover! Germany comes closer to using autonomous cars which travel with low speed on a defined route with a new law being passed. @ ZF
Make way for the people mover! Germany comes closer to using autonomous cars which travel with low speed on a defined route with a new law being passed. @ ZF

2021 – Most progressive law for self-driving cars

Cars in the luxury segment could already offer Level 3 driving. In the longer term, cars will be in complete control and the driver will have to intervene only in difficult or complicated situations. For example, the Drive Pilot can drive the new S-Class with a high level of automation in heavy traffic or congestion, at speeds of up to 60 km/h. It even has functional Automated Valet Parking (a Level 4 feature). The German parliament recently introduced a new law supplying the framework needed for regular operation of driverless motor vehicles on public roads throughout the country. It also defines the obligations on the vehicle user and the manufacturer, and the new “technical supervisor.” The most important new development is that in the future, under certain circumstances it will be possible for a vehicle to drive without a driver. This makes the law the most progressive regulation on self-driving cars in the world.