Season 4 - The self-driving car

Episode 1 - Where did the idea for autonomous vehicles come from?

What do Leonardo da Vinci and David Hasselhoff have in common? Red swimming shorts and a decent front crawl? Wrong. Absolute genius, coming up with inventions centuries ahead of the curve? Getting closer, but definitely wrong too. We’ll put you out of your misery: the answer is… the self-driving car! Yep, the former is considered as the first person to have created this sort of vehicle back in the fifteenth century, while the latter was the fictional pilot of K2000 aka KITT, the most famous of ‘intelligent’ cars. It was a tricky question, we’ll admit. But then again, the answer was in the title of the article.

Having written about all sorts of emerging technologies, some more present in our day-to-day lives than others, we’ve decided to tackle these cars that already run on our roads with no human help (or basically none). But if certain experts on the subject are to be believed, the first model was actually invented by the Italian master in 1478. That is, centuries before the invention of the car itself. It’s quite an extreme viewpoint: the invention marked with the number 812 in the Codex Atlanticus sure is a work of genius, but rather far removed from IRL autonomous vehicles. What he depicts is something the French newspaper Libération describes as “a wooden and metal structure, made up of many springs and gears balanced on three wheels”, a model of which can be found at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

But unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), not everyone is as genius as Leonardo da Vinci. It would be several centuries before autonomous vehicles would see any further advances… with the development of missile technology in the 1870s and 1880s. To make them more precise and to improve their range, they were equipped with increasingly advanced self-propulsion and guidance technology. Several decades later, it would be the aviation sector, looking to run flights over longer distances, would develop the first generation of automatic pilots. The most famous of them, Mechanical Mike, dates back to 1933. Then, in 1945, a young blind engineer known as Ralph Teetor invented the first speed regulator to make journeys all the more comfortable.

Although the automobile industry was rather late to embrace this technology, the first vehicle considered to be autonomous was designed for the roads. Built in 1961, it was in fact meant to land on the moon, thanks to cameras capable of following marks on the ground. In 1977, meanwhile, Tsukuba Mechanical, a Japanese business, created a car equipped with two cameras used to follow road markings at a speed of around 30km/h. We’re not going to list all the inventions that emerged in the subsequent years, but this Japanese creation is most often considered as the starting point of the self-driving car as we know it today.

A significant impetus for development was when the academic world started collaborating on projects with private businesses, and even military research, starting in the 1980s. Self-driving cars would soon develop in various different directions: those that would help the driver, those capable of switching from manual to autonomous, and those designed to be used by a human. During this period, several vehicles managed to travel significant distances without any exterior assistance. Among them, the most famous was undoubtedly a return Munich-Copenhagen trip (a distance of 1,600 kilometres) that took place without any human intervention at all.

Then came the 2000s and the various breakthroughs in digital technology. The rapid rise of big tech firms – and the potential they saw in this emerging technology – would enable the self-driving car to become a reality. Enter Tesla, named after the American inventor Nikola Tesla. Its automatic pilot system was bestowed on all owners of its vehicles in a single update to its software in 2015. Which is pretty impressive, you have to admit.

Overall, it’s thought that there are around 30 million driverless cars in the world, of 1.3 billion total. But while some think this is only the start, others are more pessimistic about the future of the technology. Regardless, since self-driving vehicles pose fundamental security and ethical questions (like the so-called Trolley Problem), a ranking of different levels of automatic driving was created to regulate their development.

The first refers to cars equipped with driving assistance technology like help with sticking to lanes or speed regulators. But these elements can’t function at the same time. Level two allows for these technologies to coincide but the driver cannot take their eyes off the road or their hands off the steering wheel. This would apply to Tesla’s autopilot system. Level three more closely resembles K2000, as the car is in full control, not the human, who’s very much a passenger. The car can, however, ask the latter to take hold of the wheel. In France, this sort of vehicle is allowed on the roads, but in very specific (and limiting) circumstances (maximum speeds of 60km/h,  roads without cyclists and pedestrians with central reservation). Only a Mercedes has obtained the American certification at this point.

Level four includes cars that are able, potentially without even a steering wheel or pedal, to drive entirely independently on certain roads. Finally, five is pretty much the same, but can drive in any location or context. Above all, in the event of an accident, the vehicle (rather than any driver) bears responsibility. And quite right, since there wouldn’t be one on board. It’s obviously no surprise these sorts of cars aren’t quite ready for the road just yet.

Midnight Trains Logo