In this lesson, we will delve into the fascinating history of autonomous vehicles, from their early beginnings to the promising future they hold.

  1. Beginnings
  • The history of autonomous vehicles is an ongoing journey with no clear end in sight.
  • The idea of autonomous vehicles traces back to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci in 1478 when he sketched a programmed trolley.
  • Da Vinci’s concept featured a mechanism similar to clockwork, designed to travel along a predetermined path.
  • This visionary sketch can be considered the inception of the autonomous vehicle concept.
  • However, da Vinci’s trolley, like modern autonomous vehicles, built upon the inventions of earlier generations. Ancient Greece, for instance, contributed foundational ideas, including Heron’s automated puppet show, resembling an early form of an “autopilot.”

  1. Years of Daydreaming
  • The following five decades saw sporadic attempts at creating autonomous vehicles, mainly as conceptual designs.
  • In 1939, General Motors sponsored an exhibition called “Futurama,” which showcased the vision of a future city with electric vehicles controlled by radio waves.
  • General Motors also presented prototypes of autonomous vehicles called Firebird in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • In 1958, RCA and General Motors experimented with vehicles equipped with radio receivers and actuators, which could be controlled by radio signals.
  • The 1960s saw the UK Traffic and Road Testing Laboratory testing the Citroen DS, operated using cables embedded in the road.
  • The early 1970s held promise for autonomous vehicles, with predictions of road improvements and safety benefits.
  • However, funding for these projects dwindled in the mid-1970s.

  1. Dream Becomes a Reality
  • In 1977, Japan’s Tsukuba laboratory introduced the first computerized autonomous vehicle capable of following road markings.
  • The 1980s witnessed significant progress. Ernst Dickmanns and his team developed the VaMoRs in 1986, an autonomous vehicle based on camera data.
  • In 1989, Carnegie Mellon University pioneered the use of artificial neural networks in autonomous vehicles.
  • The 1990s saw the “No Hands Across America” venture, with Carnegie Mellon University’s Navlab completing a 5,000 km journey.
  • Professor Alberto Broggi’s ARGO project in 1996 modified a Lancia Thema to follow road lines autonomously.
  • In 2004, DARPA organized the Grand Challenge, spurring innovation in autonomous vehicles.
  • Notably, autonomous dump trucks by Komatsu began testing in 2008.
  • The SARTRE project (2009-2012) aimed to create road trains with passenger vehicles following a professional driver’s lead.

  1. Present
  • Modern driver assistance systems in serially manufactured vehicles have brought us closer to fully autonomous vehicles.
  • These systems include collision prevention, driver monitoring, recognition of traffic signs, adaptive lights, blind spot monitoring, lane departure prevention, parking assistance, and active suspension.
  • Manufacturers like Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Volvo, Toyota, and Volkswagen are actively developing autonomous vehicles.
  • Google’s Waymo project, which started in 2009, is one of the most well-known autonomous vehicle initiatives.
  • These efforts are striving to make autonomous vehicles a common sight on our roads.
  • A significant milestone was Diamler and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s autonomous drive in 2013, when a vehicle independently traveled the same route that Bertha Benz had taken 125 years earlier, marking the first long-distance car journey in history.


  • The history of autonomous vehicles is rich with innovation, from da Vinci’s sketches to modern self-driving technology.
  • While the journey continues, the past demonstrates the human drive to explore autonomous transportation.
  • With ongoing advancements in technology, we are inching closer to the day when autonomous vehicles become a commonplace reality on our roads.
Go back