The Pathway to Driverless Cars

The future of driverless cars is bright – but how have they developed? Here at ALA GAP Insurance we decided to take a closer look.

Published: 2nd May 2016

The future of driverless cars is bright – but how have they developed? Here at ALA GAP Insurance we decided to take a closer look.

Driverless Cars – The Way Ahead

Driverless cars, and autonomous vehicles, are steadily becoming the next ‘thing’ in automotive engineering and development. Companies from Apple to Ford are either developing or researching autonomous vehicles for the general market, and Tesla is continuing to make headlines with improvements to its technologies and advances in how autonomous vehicles are becoming.

The current technologies available to the consumer do not give full autonomy to the vehicle – yet. Assisted driving is, perhaps, a better term, and the modern systems available today aim to make driving easier, particularly during motorway driving (an advance on cruise control) and with more complex tasks like parking. The aim is to move slowly into full autonomy, getting people more and more used to the idea of not needing to be entirely in control of the vehicle.

Driverless Cars: 1920s – 1950s

The push towards autonomous vehicles actually began in the 1920s, with Houdina Radio Control demonstrating a driverless radio-controlled car on the streets of New York City. Experiments with radio control continued on until the 1950s, when GM partnered with RCA Labs to create a system by which cars were controlled through circuitry buried in the pavement – much like the popular toy Scalextric. GM even built a series of prototypes, called Firebirds, billed as having “an electronic guidance system”. This circuitry -based trend, and variations thereof, continued into the 1980s until a Mercedes-Benz van was converted to run using robotic vision. A number of different robotics agencies demonstrated autonomous vehicles in this period, predominantly using on-board sensors and methods of robotic vision.

A second turning point came towards the end of the 1980s , with Carnegie Mellon University pioneering the use of neural networks to steer and otherwise control autonomous vehicles – forming the basis of modern control strategies. By the 2000s, a number of government initiatives had been formed to work on autonomous vehicle technology, and the technology had greatly advanced – although autonomous vehicles were still not available to the consumer, beyond what we might now consider basic forms of autonomy, like cruise control.

Driverless cars: 2010s and onwards

Since 2010 , a number of different manufacturers have become involved in the autonomous vehicle movement – often developing their own systems in-house. Companies from outside the automotive industry have also become involved in development, including Apple and Google.

With mainstream development comes more and more opportunities for consumers to experience autonomous driving of various levels. Mercedes has released a variant of the S-Class that includes features like autonomous steering, lane keeping, acceleration/braking, parking and more. The Infiniti Q50 uses cameras, radar and other technology to deliver collision avoidance and cruise control features, amongst others.

Some marques are even basing their entire strategy around autonomous vehicle technology, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a vehciel; Tesla, currently the front-runner for entirely electronic vehicles as well as driverless cars, has produced two vehicles featuring AutoPilot – a system featuring lane control, autonomous steering, and autonomous parking amongst others.

The future of autonomous cars seems to be bright. The technology involved continues to improve and become more widely available to consumers. Companies like Tesla and Volvo are pushing heavily for more autonomy technology in vehicles, and, when combined with electric and hybrid vehicles, the benefits are becoming more and more apparent. Whilst the push for driverless vehicles has been happening for nearly one hundred years, it is only in the last ten that real improvements have been seen, as well as mass-acceptance of the concept.

Where autonomous vehicles go from here remains to be seen, but the future certainly seems bright!

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© Copyright Sam Churchill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Published: 2nd May 2016
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