Human Achievement of the Day: Autonomous Vehicles, from Imagination to Reality

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman about to take a spin in the Google car. (Photo by Marc Scribner) CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman about to take a spin in a Google self-driving car in May 2012. (Photo by Marc Scribner)

As we prepare for another Human Achievement Hour (this Saturday, March 29, 8:30 pm – 9:30 pm), we at CEI are examining some of the latest, greatest innovations that will make the future even freer and more prosperous. One massively transformative technology currently in development is the autonomous vehicle, known more widely as “driverless” or “self-driving” cars. Google’s prototype has been covered extensively by the media, traditional automotive companies such as Bosch and Volkswagen are working hard on their prototypes, and new estimates put the potential societal benefits of autonomous vehicles at $3 trillion per year.

As I’ve noted in the past, we should be “thrilled that a technology that can greatly improve traffic safety, offer disabled people an unprecedented level of personal mobility and fundamentally change the way we travel is so close.” Soon, if you imbibe too much on a night on the town, your car or a rideshare provider’s car will be able to take you home. And thanks to reduced congestion due to optimized driving behavior, we will also enjoy improved local air quality. Whatever your political leanings, you should be excited about our driverless future — unless you’re reflexively and ideologically anti-technology.

In the last 10 years, the technology has progressed a great deal — to the point where it is quite possible that first generation highly automated vehicles will be available to consumers before the decade closes. To understand how we got to the stage of the Google self-driving car, it is instructive to see how far we’ve come. What follows is a brief history of autonomous vehicles that covers the technologies’ developments up until about 10 years ago.

Personal mobility has traditionally required active human monitoring and direction, from walking to riding horseback to bicycling. The physical and cognitive demands of travel have long been recognized, as has the capacity for and costs of human error in transportation. In the late fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a design for a self-propelled cart with programmable steering, which was later compiled in the Atlantic Codex.

Engineering interest in vehicle automation stretches back to the 1920s, when auto ownership first became within reach of middle-class households. Inventor Francis P. Houdina demonstrated a radio-controlled car on the streets of Manhattan in 1925. Houdina’s invention was never treated as anything more than a novelty — although his company’s prominence led to a physical altercation with famed escape artist Harry Houdini, who thought Houdina was capitalizing on their similar names, which resulted in a disorderly conduct charge against Houdini — but the challenge of developing automated vehicles became recognized in research communities.

At the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, General Motors’ interactive Futurama exhibit predicted high-speed automated roadways in 20 years. While GM’s prediction of a driverless world proved premature, its prediction of individual automobile ownership becoming widespread rather than a luxury for the wealthy and upper-middle class — which sounded incredibly bizarre during the Great Depression — proved accurate.

The first practical application of vehicle automation took place not on the roadway, but in the warehouse. In 1953, Arthur Barrett, Jr., developed the first automated guided vehicle (AGV), what he described as a “driverless vehicle” called the Guide-O-Matic. The Guide-O-Matic followed a wire in the ceiling and helped turn Barrett Electronics into a major provider of advanced logistics and distribution center equipment. Barrett Industrial Trucks was later sold to Nissan.

Serious research into highway vehicle automation began in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Joseph Bidwell, the head of General Motors’ Research Engineering Mechanics Department, and his team of engineers developed a crude automatically guided Chevrolet in 1958. In the front of the car sat a pair of coils that could detect the alternating current of a wire set in the roadway and adjust the steering wheel to follow the path. In principle, this was little different than Barrett’s Guide-O-Matic, but it shows the seriousness with which automobile manufactures began to take with respect to highway vehicle automation.

In addition to GM, others such as RCA’s Vladimir Zworykin were also developing infrastructure-reliant highway vehicle automation. Zworykin’s 1960 model used circuits buried under roadways to detect vehicle speed and location, the data from which was then transmitted to a central control computer to compute instructions for the vehicles.

Private sector research into highway vehicle automation largely collapsed following the passage of federal auto safety laws and the promulgation of strict safety regulations beginning in the mid-1960s. This was followed by strict fuel economy regulations in the 1970s. Rather than investing in futuristic research and development projects, automakers redirected resources to building a fleet that met the new political safety and energy requirements.

Industry and government researchers turned back to highway vehicle automation technologies in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some of this research led to the adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance, and self-parking features that are installed in some new vehicles today. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 tasked the U.S. Department of Transportation with creating the Automated Highway System (AHS) program. AHS led to the formation of the National Automated Highway System Consortium (NAHSC), a public-private effort to develop automated highway systems prototypes.

Yet with enactment of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century in 1998, the Department of Transportation (DOT) ceased all funding of NAHSC. Within DOT, several AHS components were continued in less ambitious intelligent transportation systems (ITS) programs, such as the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, that primarily aimed to provide better data and control to human drivers. However, by the late 1990s, no comprehensive long-term research program dedicated to developing highly automated highway technologies existed at DOT.

In 2000, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2001, which provided the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) $100 million to develop “unmanned advanced capability combat aircraft and ground combat vehicles.” Two years later, in NDAA FY 2003, Congress authorized the development of “a program to award cash prizes,” up to $1 million, “in recognition of outstanding achievements that are designed to promote science, mathematics, engineering, or technology education in support of the missions of the U.S. Department of Defense.” In addition to being the genesis of the unmanned combat aircraft (drone) programs that have become a source of great controversy in recent years, DARPA used its NDAA authority to create a series of Grand Challenges — contests open to the public aimed to promote the development of autonomous ground vehicles.

Following the DARPA Grand Challenges (from which the early Google team originated), the private sector again showed renewed interest — zeal, really — in developing autonomous vehicles. We are now facing the very real possibility that autonomous vehicles will be on the roads by 2020. Like the predictions of Houdina and 1939 General Motors, this may well be too optimistic. Yet before application, you need vision. Without the Houdinas of the world to imagine what we can achieve, where would we be? Certainly in a less vibrant, innovative, and prosperous world.

About Human Achievement Hour (HAH): Human Achievement Hour is about paying tribute to the human innovations that allow people around the globe to live better, fuller lives, while also defending the basic human right to use energy to improve the quality of life of all people. Human Achievement Hour is the counter argument to Earth Hour, and promotes looking to technology and innovation to help solve environmental problems instead of reverting to the “dark ages,” by symbolically refusing to use electricity for an hour.