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Autonomous Vehicles: A Plunge in History

The automotive industry has been one of the firsts to innovate and embrace new technologies. When Henry Ford made the first quadricycle in the 1800s in a small shed, less thought had he must have given to the future of automotive. The quadricycle was considered revolutionary at the times of horse-driven carriages. In contrast, today we see more powerful vehicles been driven around by metallic chunks of huge power. Many automotive companies have also expanded into making engines for airplanes.

Along with power, the ease with which automotive operate and the comfort they provide to driver and riders has increased. The first quadricycle did not have a reverse gear, you had to manually tow it back; but now, cars come fitted with a rear parking assist camera that allows the driver to view the rear without arching his neck. The driver-vehicle interface has also upgraded multifold: from the wooden plank that earned it the name dashboard, drivers now have the option to play music, call via the dashboard and even navigate through their route. However, the drivers still must drive the vehicle. What if they needn’t? Autonomous Vehicles [AVs] have the possibility to transform the transportation and commutation system fundamentally.

To break down and better track changes in the industry, the Society of Automotive Engineers [SAE] predicted 6 levels[1] of automation:

  • Level 0 is the stage at which the driver is in full control of the vehicle and driving.
  • Level 1 is the driver being assisted in steering and speed control i.e. acceleration and brake systems.
  • Level 2 is the “partial automation” stage in which the system controls the direction and speed of the vehicle i.e. steering and acceleration and braking systems and the driver handles other aspects.
  • Level 3 is the first stage towards automation and called the “conditional automation” stage where the intelligent system is placed in control of the driving tasks but the driver is still required to be in the seat, ready to intervene in case of ‘fallback performance’.
  • Level 4, dubbed as “high automation” is the penultimate stage where the automated system controls all aspects with the driver needed for intervention in some scenarios.
  • Level 5 is the theoretical “full automation” in which the driver shall be relieved of all controls and need not intervene in any scenario.

This, however, in no way means that the development of AVs is being carried out in this linear fashion only. Even now, though the vehicles are not fully automated, we already have partially automated vehicles that have been categorized as Level 2 by SAE.

The vision of autonomous was first made public at General Motor’s Futurama in the 1939 World’s Fair which envisioned “abundant sunshine, fresh air (and) fine parkways upon which cars would drive themselves.” [2]

The US defense and research agency DARPA organized ‘The DARPA Grand Challenge’ to encourage innovators to create the first long-distance enabled driverless vehicles as back as 2004. Though none of the competitors could complete the 150-mile challenge set by the agency, the challenge was nevertheless considered a milestone in the history of autonomous vehicles. The Grand Challenge gave Google Sebastian Thrum, who would later go on to head the Google Driverless Car Program.

The first crash of a self-driven vehicle occurred in Mountain View, Cal. when a Google car switched lane and rammed into an oncoming bus.[3] But it was hushed against the promise of an autonomous future, the TIME Magazine in its March 2016 issue ran the photo of a driverless car as its cover story with the title “No traffic. No accidents. No deaths. All you have to do is give up your right to drive.”[4]

Contradicting the claims, the first registered self-driving car related human loss was registered in June the same year with a Tesla Model S collided head-on with a truck coming from opposite lane failing to distinguish it against the clear sky.[5]

Companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon possess the resources and capabilities to develop superior software, these then partner up with automaker companies and test their software on their vehicles. However, there are traditional automakers like General Motors and MG Motors too which are expanding into the AV market.


[1] Copyright © 2014 SAE International

[2] Autonomous Cars through the Ages, Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital. Web.

[3] Dave Lee, Google self-driving car hits a bus, at “http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35692845“, accessed Dec 14, 2019

[4] Time, “NO TRAFFIC. NO ACCIDENTS. NO DEATHS”, March 2016 Issue, available at https://time.com/magazine/us/4236955/march-7th-2016-vol-187-no-8-u-s/

[5] Danny Yadron and Dan Tynan, “Tesla driver dies in a first fatal crash while using autopilot mode”, Dec 12, 2019, available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/30/tesla-autopilot-death-self-driving-car-elon-musk


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This article is first in our series on Automated Vehicles. The next article shall deal with the public perception and benefits of AVs.

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Gyan Tripathi

Gyan is Editor, Information Technology for Metacept and has a keen interest in tech and the evolution of cyber policy and tech laws. A good articulator, he has authored many blogs. Tweets @Gyan_Tripathi_

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