Did you know that over 90% of accidents are caused by human error? If you could eliminate the human equation, road travel would be significantly safer. We're on the cusp of a significant transformation that may do just that. And that is autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars have the potential to substantially impact the future of transportation and society as a whole.
Other potential impacts include improved efficiency (less traffic and shorter commute times) and increased accessibility (for people who cannot drive themselves due to age, disability, or other factors). Even though the technology behind autonomous vehicles isn't quite there yet, it's just a matter of time. To celebrate how far we have come, we need to go back millennia and take you on a journey to the most important developments that have brought us to where we are today
1. The Wheel
Considered the hallmark of human innovation, the wheel has had a fascinating evolution. First of all, no wheels exist in nature. Throughout history, most inventions have been inspired by the natural world.
The idea for the airplane, for example, came from soaring birds, while the submarine came from whales. But the wheel is one hundred percent a human invention.
Second, unlike the telephone or the light bulb, the invention of the wheel cannot be attributed to a single (or even multiple) inventors.
There is evidence that the earliest wheels were potter's wheels in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. A few hundred years later, round wheels were finally developed, connected by wooden spokes and an axle.
This led to the use of chariots by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
These early chariots were nothing more than a two-wheeled basin pulled by one or two horses. But they were light and fast and quickly became the preferred vehicle for warfare
Another, even more important application was the wheel's contribution to the mechanization of agriculture. This had an immediate and dramatic impact on societies throughout the Middle East and Europe.
It dramatically increased the productivity of farmers. Where teams of people were once needed to transport heavy loads of fertilizer, seeds, water or harvest, the ox wagon revolutionized the entire process.
For the next several millennia, carts pulled by horses or oxen was the most advanced form of land transportation.
The next advance took place between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, when the first wheelbarrow appeared in classical Greece.
Although the wheel was used primarily for transportation, it soon found other applications. The spinning wheel is another example of how the wheel can be used. This device, invented in India over 2,500 years ago, was used to spin yarn from natural fibers such as cotton, flax and wool.
During the Industrial Revolution, water mills used water wheels - large structures with paddles on the edge - to generate hydropower. These watermills powered textile mills, sawmills, and flour mills.
Probably the most significant (and also recent) development was the discovery of vulcanization (the process of curing rubber). In the 1830s, American Charles Goodyear was experimenting with natural rubber. But all attempts to turn rubber into something useful failed. He spent years trying to figure out how to stabilize rubber and even continued his experiments in debtor's prison. But one day he accidentally added sulfur to the rubber on a stove. Instead of melting, the mixture hardened. This hardened rubber proved to be an improvement over bare wooden or iron wheels. Though it didn't take care of the rattling of wheels as they passed over uneven surfaces.
It wasn't until 1887 when John Dunlop, a practicing veterinarian, invented the pneumatic tire which offered greater comfort. His invention was an immediate commercial success and was first used for bicycles. Soon it found its way into the automobile industry which was in its formative years.
2. The Horse Carriage
Horse-drawn carriages in a variety of forms quickly became the defining means of transportation throughout Europe.
They were developed not only for the practical needs of getting around and delivery of goods, but also for style, elegance and changing fashions.
Some of the most popular evolutions of the horse-drawn carriage were the Hackney carriage (used in the 17th century), the stagecoach, the buggy (still used by the Amish), the landau (still used for royal ceremonies in England), and the barouche.
The royalty families and aristocratic circles owned thousands of these carriages. They were housed in buildings called mews, which contained not only stables for the horses, but also a carriage house and quarters for the staff.
The most famous is the Royal Mews in the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
Today it is a tourist destination with the finest working stables still in existence and a collection of historic carriages and coaches.
In 1829, the horse-drawn hail-and-ride bus was introduced in England, followed much later by horse-drawn trams on rails in 1870.
By the late 1800s, the idea of a self-powered car was slowly coming together, and the days of the horse-drawn carriage seemed numbered.
3. The Engine
The European engineers who set out to develop the first automobile faced a major problem: how to squeeze the power of a galloping horse into a small, reliable engine
By building on the ideas of others, they eventually succeeded in building the first self-powered car.
In the late 17th century, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens had an idea for an engine that would generate energy by exploding gunpowder in a tube. Unfortunately, he was way ahead of his time.
At the time, technology had not advanced to the point where he could have actually built this machine.
In 1769, Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Cugnot used steam engine technology (developed in the early 1700s) to build a three-wheeled tractor that could pull heavy army cannons.
Many people consider this the world's first automobile. But it had a top speed of only 3 mph and was extremely heavy and difficult to steer.
Joseph Étienne Lenoir, a Franco-Belgian engineer, began experimenting with electricity in the 1850s. He ignited some of the gas used in street lamps in a metal can using an electric spark. His "spark plug" (as we call it today) caused the gas to explode with a burst of force that could propel a piston.
By repeating this process over and over again, he created the first "gas engine" The idea was quickly discarded, however, because gas was not practical, as it could easily explode and kill people.
Nikolaus Otto, a self-taught German engineer, built on Lenoir's work. In the 1860s, he tinkered with various engine designs and in 1876 developed an efficient gasoline engine that methodically repeated the same steps as Lenoir's gas engines. This was the first template for the modern-day car engine.
German engineer Karl Benz studied Otto's work and was able to build a simpler gasoline engine himself. He took it a step further and installed it in a three-wheeled carriage in 1885. This was essentially the world's first practical gas-powered car.
In 1888, Benz named the vehicle the "Benz Patent-Motorwagen" and began selling it, making it the first commercially available automobile in history. His wife Bertha, another automotive pioneer, came up with the idea of adding extra gears for driving uphill. She also invented brake pads.
With the invention of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines in the late 1800s, there was suddenly a demand for gasoline. Oil refineries, which had been producing gasoline since the mid-1800s, needed a way to produce it more quickly. Two chemical engineers at Standard Oil's Whiting Laboratory in Indiana began experimenting.
William Burton and Robert Humphrey came up with the idea of using both heat and pressure - and it worked. "thermal cracking," as the method was called, doubled the amount of gasoline that could be made from a given amount of crude oil and helped make it widely available. This allowed for more cars to be on the road.
By the mid 20th century, the automobile industry was already well established. In fact, human beings were already looking into the new horizon. Could cars move around with no one behind the wheel?
*The first self-driving car is widely considered to be the "Stanford Cart", which was developed in the late 1960s by researchers at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The Stanford Cart was a remote-controlled vehicle that used cameras, sensors, and a computer to navigate and avoid obstacles. It was able to follow a predetermined path and avoid collisions, making it the earliest prototype of autonomous driving technology.
Technological discoveries since then have only edged us closer to making this a realty. Some of the most significant ones include:
4. GPS (Global Positioning System)
The Global Positioning System (GPS) was developed by the United States Department of Defense in the 1970s. The development of GPS resulted from the need for an accurate navigation system for military purposes.
The concept of GPS was based on the principle of triangulation where the distance between three or more points is measured to determine an accurate location. In the case of GPS, the three points are satellites orbiting the Earth.
Today, the GPS Satellite System consists of a network of 24 satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 12,550 miles. The satellites are arranged in six orbits, with four satellites in each orbit.
The satellites are equipped with atomic clocks that provide very accurate time information. By comparing the arrival times of the signals from the different satellites, a receiver on the ground can calculate its distance to each satellite.
With this information, the GPS system can pinpoint the position to within a few meters, making it an incredibly useful tool for developing autonomous vehicles.
For example, self-driving cars need very detailed maps to navigate their surroundings. These maps contain information such as road layouts, traffic signals, and lane markings. GPS Data is used to create these maps.
Also, once a self-driving car is on the road, it uses data from GPS to determine its exact location. The car compares its GPS location with its internal map to determine its position on the road. This process is called localization and allows the car to know exactly where it's on the road at all times.
Sensors: Lidar and Radar
Ever wonder why autonomous vehicles need so many sensors in development? Well, sensors are the eyes of an autonomous vehicle. They allow it to see the world and drive safely in it. Currently, lidar and radar are the most popular sensors for autonomous driving technology. Lidar, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing technology that uses laser light to measure distances and create detailed 3D maps of the environment.
The invention of modern lidar technology can be traced back to the 1980s, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the first commercially viable lidar system. This system used a spinning mirror to direct the laser beam in different directions to create a 3D map of the environment.
In recent decades, lidar technology has continued to evolve and improve with the development of solid-state lidar sensors and other innovations. In self-driving cars, lidar is used to create high-resolution 3D maps of the vehicle's surroundings in real time. The lidar sensor emits laser pulses that bounce off objects in the environment and return to the sensor, allowing it to calculate the distance to each object.
By scanning the environment in all directions, the lidar sensor can create a detailed 3D map of the vehicle's surroundings. Lidar sensors can also detect objects that are difficult to see with other sensors, such as low-lying obstacles or objects with low reflectivity
Radar, short for Radio Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing technology that uses radio waves to detect objects and measure their distance and speed. Radar technology has been around since the 1930s and was used during World War II for military surveillance and to detect enemy aircraft.
In self-driving cars, radar serves a very similar role. Instead of laser it uses radio waves.
Though there's a heated debated in the industry on which is better. Both of them have their own strengths and weaknesses and it would be important to have them utilized together in order to achieve full capabilities.
Computer Vision and Machine Learning
All the technologies mentioned so far, from the wheel to the engine to maps and sensors, are not enough to make acar autonomous. What has proven to be a decisive factor is computer vision and machine learning.
The first documented project on computer vision was initiated by the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1950s to explore the possibility of using computers to interpret radar images. This research laid the foundation for modern computer vision.
The concept of machine learning,has been around since the 1940s, when researchers started exploring the possibility of developing machines that could learn from data.
The 2000s saw the development of the concept of Deep Learning, which uses neural networks, algorithms designed to mimic the human brain in recognizing patterns. This ha, since become a powerful tool for computer vision.
Computer vision and machine learning have contributed significantly to the development of slef driving technology.
Computer vision algorithms help process the images and videos captured by lidar and radar sensors to gain useful information and insights about the environment. For example, computer vision algorithms detetcs and differentiates cars from pedestrians or traffic signs. This information is then fed into the self-driving car's decision-making system, helping it to navigate safely through the roads.
Machine learning, in turn, plays a crucial role in improving the accuracy of lidar and radar sensors. By identifying patterns in the environment, which can then be used to make more accurate predictions about the surroundings.
Computer vision and machine learning are also being used to monitor engines and other systems in self-driving cars, in a variety of ways. For example, through predictive maintenance: machine learning algorithms can analyze sensor data from the engine and other components of the self-driving car to predict when maintenance is needed.
This information can be used to schedule maintenance before a breakdown occurs, reducing the risk of engine failure and increasing the reliability of the self-driving car.
Bottom line is these two technologies are extremely crucial in the successful development of self driving cars.
The 21st Century: The Era of Electric and Driverless Cars
By 2000, cars have existed for over a hundred years, and almost a quarter way into the 21st century, autonomous driving technological will probably prove to be the greatest differentiation factor this century. So where are we at today?
Over the past decade, numerous companies and research institutions have conducted extensive testing and development of self-driving cars. One of the most widely covered ones is Tesla, under Elon Musk's leadership.
In 2014 Tesla Motors announced its first version of AutoPilot, an automated system that takes complete control of the vehicle: accelerating, braking, and steering.
This was a Level 2 technology which means the driver has to monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene immediately at any time if the automated system fails to respond correctly.
The latest version of AutoPilot was released in 2019. Elon Musk reported that it has all the components necessary for all Full Self Driving. In December 2020, Tesla’s FSD-equipped Model 3 completed the first known and recorded instance of a self-driving trip.
The car drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles without user input. In the next decade, self driving Teslas are expected to become more widely adopted.
Amazon is another big player making moves in the autonomous driving space. For the e-commerce giant, self-driving trucks are the order of business and it recently commissioned 1,000 autonomous vehicle systems from American start-up Plus.
It's just a matter of time.