da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart: A Legacy of Autonomy

da vinci's self-propelled cart brought to life

Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled cart on display

The renaissance period is considered one of the most pivotal and culturally transformative times in history. It is 400 years of re-birth — the actual meaning of the word “re-naissance” — and renewal, moving Europe from the dark and middle ages to a reawakening of appreciation for the classics. Progress was discovered by going back to the past, embracing the long eschewed teachings of the ancient Greeks while also advancing such things as art and literature through a more realistic approach. Into this time came several amazing artists, scientists, humanists, and all-around great thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci is among the greatest of these with his extraordinary paintings, scientific research and inventions. His Mona Lisa alone has sparked centuries of speculation and wonder, but it is his sketches of far ahead of their time ideas for mechanical contraptions that some of today’s greatest machines owe their existence. One of these is da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, the very first driverless vehicle concept, which many consider the first ever robot.

The man behind the myth

one of the only known true portraits of da Vinci

Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515-18

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 into a situation that could have easily led to his obscurity. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a wealthy attorney and notary in the Italian city, Vinci, Leonardo’s surname actually means “Of Vinci,” as he was not able to take the name of his father, Ser Piero. While his parents would go on to have children with each of their respective partners after him, Leonardo was the only child the two had together and was raised on his father’s estate with some of his half siblings. By the age of 15, he had been schooled in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and was showing artistic talent. Back in the day, becoming an artist was seen as a worthwhile vocation and he was sent to study with painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, in Florence.


da Vinci innovates in the painting of his master

Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ) — the angel kneeling at the far left is da Vinci’s first example of the innovative figura serpentinata style

Before long, young Leonardo was eclipsing his master. While working with del Verocchio, Leonardo was asked to contribute to Andrea’s painting,  The Baptism of Christ, adding to the landscape, Christ’s body and creating an angel whose twisted pose was in a brand new style that was just being recognized in the artwork of the time. It became known as figura serpentinata and legend has it that when del Verrocchio saw what his young apprentice had contributed, he was so overwhelmed by Leonardo’s talent that Andrea never painted again.

Throughout this entire era, Leonardo was constantly drawing, writing, and capturing ideas that included and went far beyond his art. He filled dozens of notebooks with hundreds of pages of sketches and notes on human anatomy, horses, birds, architecture, scientific ideas, and fantastical inventions that were precursors to the bicycle, the helicopter, the airplane, the parachute, armored tanks — he was a much sought after military strategist and designer of combat weapons and transport — and weapons. These handwritten volumes — or codices — showed portraits beside shopping lists and in his Codex Atlanticus, the plans for da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were discovered.

the Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus as presented by Pompeo Leoni in the 1600s. The “book” is a box he created to collect all the pages. Photo by Mario Taddei in 2007

Now, 15th century roads weren’t even horse-and-carriage worthy and it would be almost 400 years more before motorized travel was more than DIY trial and error. What in the world possessed Leonardo to come up with a horseless carriage let alone a robotic contraption in a time when unmanned anything was an anomaly?


A true renaissance man

Just for the record, robots or, better yet, robotics were nothing new to Leonardo. In the early 1480s, da Vinci became the military designer for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, aka Il Moro, which means The Moor due to his dark complexion and black hair. Leonardo became a huge asset to the constantly strategically vulnerable Italian city, designing countless combat vehicles and weapons, among these the first machine gun. He got the job by writing Sforza a letter introducing himself, what he could do for his region, and outlining his 11 most relevant talents with the ultimate goal of being offered the commission on sculpting a bronze statue of the duke’s late father on horseback. The letter is considered the first ever resume and worked.

Model of the robot knight based on Leonardo da Vinci drawings on display in Berlin 2005

Leonardo built his robot knight around 1495 to entertain Sforza and his court at a celebration in the duke’s honor. It amused all who attended to no end, and could sit, stand, raise its visor and its arms, and even had a technically correct jaw that allowed it to open its mouth and “talk.” It was operated via a series of pulleys and cables, making it sort of a cross between a puppet and a robot, but nothing like it had been seen at that time and it amazed everyone.

Twenty years later, Leonardo did it again with a robot lion presented to the newly crowned King of France, Francois I, by one of da Vinci’s greatest patrons, Giuliano de’ Medici. The lion was noted as having “moved from its place in the hall and when it came to a halt its breast opened, and was full of lilies and flowers.” The symbolic gift married both the icons of Florence — the lion — and the fleurs-de-lis of France — lilies.

In preparation for a renaissance festival around the same time as he created his robotic knight, Leonardo began sketching something that would delight children and fair goers. He drew up plans for an autonomous vehicle that would move through the festival on its own and be programmed to steer itself. da Vinci’s self-propelled cart — also known as “da Vinci’s Fiat” — had no seat, so ferrying passengers didn’t seem to be his goal, and the sketches showed no clear way to make it actually work. The idea stayed on the page and was puzzled over for centuries without anyone able to determine how the model would operate. And so, like so many of his sketches and plans, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart remained a beautiful, inspiring piece of art for centuries.


Cracking the da Vinci self-propelled cart code

da vinci self-propelled cart

Original sketch of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, aka “da Vinci’s Fiat”

Interest in da Vinci’s self-propelled cart was sparked in 1905 when Girolamo Calvi, an Italian intellectual and avid da Vinci fan, discovered the drawing. He nicknamed it “Leonardo’s Fiat” and enlisted the aid of international scholars to figure out the device. Almost another century would pass before the ancient sketches would be figured out.

For centuries, the greatest brains had noticed, but been unable to figure out the reason for the coiled springs in the drawings. Then in 1997, experts at The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, now known as Museo Galileo, revisited da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and realized it worked like clockwork. The car worked via a cog-and-gear system with the coiled springs serving as the propulsion. It was basically a giant wind-up toy with springs hidden in the drum system under the vehicle, and set running by winding them up and letting go, something that could be done by letting go of a string or rope from a distance to make it seem as if the cart had started on its own. It was possible to pre-program steering of the vehicle by placing pegs into a series of notches. da Vinci had thought of everything, even the road system of Florence, which was predominantly one-way. The self-propelled vehicle, therefore, was only able to make right turns in keeping with Florence’s infrastructure.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart model

Leonardo da Vinci self-propelled cart at the exhibition “Da Vinci – An Exhibition of Genius” in the Macau Tower, Macau. Photo by xiquinhosilva

By 2004, two different models of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were built — one to the specifications of Leonardo’s original design of 1.68 meters (5 feet 6 inches) long and 1.49 meters (4 feet 11 inches) wide, and another at ⅓ scale for demonstration. This was done to mitigate risk, because once the brake was released on the model, the cart was capable of “motoring” 40 meters (130 feet). Because engineers wanted to truly prove the invention could be made, they used building materials that would have been readily available to the innovator at the time, which were various woods. Heavy, strong and immensely powerful, da Vinci’s cart was a rousing success and proved that his vision not only for motorized, but autonomous travel was real, and establishing him as the first person to invent driverless transportation.

Intrigue and influence beyond imagining

Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions have long been sources of inspiration and research, prompting several engineers and aficionados to build his ideas to varying degrees of success. His elaborate designs and meticulous notes are stuff of legend and constant speculation. The armored tank he sketched, for example, had a fatal design flaw — it’s wheels rolled toward each other, meaning it would be impossible for it to ever move. Because of his brilliance and immense attention to detail, no one believes this was done by accident. Many see this as his way of ensuring one of two things: 1) that the war machine was never made (at heart, da Vinci was a pacifist) or 2) that his competitors would never be able to duplicate it.

a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci showing "mirror writing"

An example of Leonardo da Vinci’s “mirror writing”

This exquisite study in subterfuge is best seen in da Vinci’s handwritten notes themselves. He got into the habit of writing everything backwards to keep his ideas secret. Known as Mirror Writing, this threw off everyone including the commissioner hired by the Austrian Empire in 1815 who was charged with reclaiming and redistributing the various pieces of art Napoleon and his troops had commandeered and kept in the Louvre since his conquest of Milan back in 1796. Because of the right-to-left style of the Codex Atlanticus, the commissioner was about to just leave it in the Louvre rather than try to return it to a native country, because he just thought it was some sort of Chinese manuscript.  However, the commissioner for the Pope, Antonio Canova, who was on hand to help with the distribution of works, noticed what it was and told him to give it back to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italy, the conservatory to which it was bequeathed in 1637.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart is said to have inspired the rover

An artist’s rendering of Mars Exploration Rover

From Mona Lisa and the Vitruvian Man to his flying machine and armored tank, the great inventor, artist, scientist and thinker has influenced almost every facet of art/engineering/science/philosophy. Many see a distinct resemblance between da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and the Mars Land Rover.  Many of his inventions are still used today, some of which you may not even know originated with him. The same guy who painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa, encoded Last Supper and spent countless hours dissecting human corpses to better understand anatomy for his art and science, also created the ball bearing, practical parachute, diving suit, double hulled ship (if the Titanic had one of those, it would still be floating today), and perfected the scissors and printing press. All have changed the face of technology and influenced progress today, but it is, arguably, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart that set the most extraordinary precedence. And as the world of self-driving vehicles continues to expand, the future this true renaissance man envisioned becomes a long-awaited reality.



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Child Safety in a Self-Driving World

getting ready for child safety in self-driving cars

When the automobile was first invented, protecting the driver—let alone the passenger—wasn’t a consideration. So, it’s no surprise that child safety in a motor vehicle was non-existent. Nowadays, there are stringent rules covering virtually every aspect of child passenger safety. These range from which type of car seat to use for different stages of physical development to where little ones are allowed to sit. With self-driving cars on the horizon, one wonders how autonomous vehicle makers will protect these unique passengers.

Historical automobile-based child safety concerns

CDC child injury fatality statistics

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transportation is the number one cause of injury deaths for children ages 0-19, with the highest rate of fatalities suffered as occupants in an automobile. With human error the main cause of car deaths, many look toward the adoption of autonomous vehicles as a way to significantly reduce traffic incidents. The focus of innovation, however, has largely been on the general maneuverability and safety of these cars on the road. Situations have recently occurred that call into question the viability of auto-pilot/self-driving systems in case of unforeseen circumstances, but here, again, the problems have largely been human fallibility, not mechanical.

First, let’s take a look at how this dilemma has been faced from the beginning.

The genesis of automotive child safety

a look at child safety in the early daysRegardless of early attempts in the late 1700s, the car was first truly made viable in the late 1800s. There were no traffic lights and stop signs on the road; no windows or seat belts in automobiles. Collision avoidance systems were relegated to horns or shouting out to pedestrians, “watch out!” Brakes were rudimentary hand affairs similar to that in bicycles—and some cars didn’t have brakes at all. Getting the public to embrace this new form of horseless carriage and deal with the fallout from accidents or breakdowns were already a challenge. Focusing on child safety, specifically, didn’t come into play at all.

By 1933, however, it became apparent that some sort of child restraint system had to be put into place to address the unique needs of securing kids in cars—lap belts weren’t cutting it. This was seen more as a convenience rather than protection—keeping fidgety kids in place and where parents could see them. The evolution of child passenger safety went through everything from fully-reclined seats to backseat playpens.

Then in 1962, two different people came up with ways to revolutionize child safety seats— Jean Ames created the first back-facing/y-shaped car seat over in Great Britain while Leonard Rivkin, an American children’s furniture store owner from Denver, fashioned a forward facing solution in Colorado. The Ames design is closest to the rear-facing car seat used today, but these two started automakers and consumers down the road to requiring children to have specially made equipment to keep them safe in motor vehicles. Although there have been a few unique spins on how to keep kids protected in cars since then—Ford Motor Company introduced the Tot Guard in 1973, a sort of plastic encasement with a pillow on the top to protect the child’s face should they jerk forward in an accident—child passenger safety has advanced significantly.

Child safety today

Today, there is a plethora of OEM and aftermarket child safety features available on the market that go far beyond the basic seat belt or child restraint. In general, these include the following solutions.

Child Safety Locks

Back doors

For the most part, child safety locks on backseat car doors can be turned on manually by pushing a lever or button on the side of the left and right side doors. Once initiated, it is impossible for backseat passengers to open the door from the inside.


Located on the driver’s side armrest are the buttons for the automatic windows and door locks. There is also a control called the driver-operated window disabler, which allows the driver to lock all passenger windows.

Anti-Pinch Automatic Windows

Newer windows have an express roll-up feature—with one push of a button, the windows rise to close without having to hold the controls down. When obstacles are in the way, however, the window continues going up and kids have come away with hurt hands, bruised heads and more due to getting whatever caught in the opening. The anti-pinch feature detects even the slightest pressure and immediately halts the upward movement of the window and takes it down, automatically.

child safety around the worldInfant/Child Safety Seats

Arguably the most familiar of child safety features, the car seat has grown from optional to mandatory over the years. As mentioned, there are regulations on the kind of seat to be used for which stage of development, where they must be placed in the car and are available both as aftermarket solutions and, in the case of Volvo in particular, OEM. They are credited as the single most effective protection for children in case of an accident when installed and used correctly.

The LATCH Program

LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, which was federally mandated in the U.S. in 1999. The legislation requires cars to install hardware that makes it easier to “latch” a child protective seat properly and securely. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates LATCH equipped vehicles based on the ease with which parents can install car seats with the features provided. In some cases, it’s easier to put a child safety seat into cars that don’t have LATCH systems due to a variety of factors, so a low rating doesn’t mean there will be an issue with the seat itself.

Smart Airbags

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the installation and use of airbags back in 1994. Located on the driver and front passenger side of a vehicle, they are activated during a collision via a variety of sensors. Unfortunately, because of where children’s heads are situated when sitting in the front seat, passenger side airbags can cause injuries and, even, fatalities. This led to the rear seat requirement for kids under a certain height and weight.

Smart airbags have additional sensors that can determine where a passenger is sitting in relation to where the airbag will deploy. These sensors are known as seat occupancy detectors or occupancy classification sensors (OCS). The capability ranges from releasing the airbag with less pressure than it normally would to accommodate certain passengers to not activating at all for the same reason.

Transmission Shift Interlocks

Children reaching over and shifting a car from park into a gear when the motor is running has become common. The transmission shift interlock stops that from accidentally happening by communicating with the brake. If the brake is engaged, it is possible to move from Park to a gear. However, if the brake is not pressed, shifting is halted.

The new normal of child safety

OEM solutions for cars are now the norm and constantly innovating to keep up with the changes in an already advancing market as well as there being a variety of aftermarket products available at retail for installation. Some automakers have models that come already equipped with car seats for child passengers, taking the guesswork out of installing them—most accidents involving young occupants occur because either the child wasn’t strapped in or the car seat wasn’t secured correctly. Volvo, in particular, has established a robust child safety program that has become more extensive and innovative through the decades. It stands to reason considering it was a Volvo engineer who created then perfected the 3-point shoulder belt.

Wellcome Library, London. Colour Lithograph by Peter Huveneers, via Wikimedia Commons

Innovative solutions to new child safety concerns

Once upon a time, getting fingers caught in a car window or door, running out into the street without looking or not being secured in the car seat were the most common concerns with kids and motor vehicles. Now, things such as being backed over because the driver can’t see a child and being forgotten or left unattended in a vehicle are becoming familiar fatalities.

To battle blind-spot issues, proximity sensors are installed in pretty much all connected cars and can “see” an obstacle in front or behind, signaling the driver when an obstruction needs to be avoided.

Forgetting children in cars or leaving them unattended is another matter and has become more of an issue that, sadly, owes a fair amount to the requirements of where and how to place a car seat. Recent incidents have led to tragic circumstances—due to both overt heat and cold. While the first response is that these are cases of child abuse, as more and more of these come up and show themselves to have no set socioeconomic, gender or racial bias, it’s become clear there is far more to this phenomena than simple child neglect.

Due to the concerns about airbag injuries, installing rear facing carseats in the backseat is required for the protection of children and they work. Once a child is strapped in, however, he or she is virtually invisible to the driver unless a backseat baby mirror has been installed. There is a feeling that this “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic of a rear-facing car seat coupled with stress, change in routine and a variety of factors that can lead to distraction contribute to these incidents. In response, everyone from concerned fathers to inventive kids have begun working on solutions to prevent this anomaly from continuing to happen. Child safety advocates are also pushing for—and getting—products that will stem this epidemic.

Car seat manufacturer, Evenflo, has created the Sensorsafe, a device that clips onto a child’s car seat chest buckle and comes with a dongle that plugs into the automobile’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) system. This allows the seat to wirelessly communicate with the vehicle, which then sends an alert to the driver either when the car turns off or the child unbuckles his or herself from the seat.

Other companies are presenting aftermarket wireless proximity sensors as well. The NHTSA put out a report in 2012 on the technologies available to help monitor children in cars and prevent leaving them behind. However, the organization discovered many of these are inconsistent and rely too heavily on caregivers, which does not alleviate the issue of distraction. Safety groups claim the best defense is education and recommend these quick, easy, no- to low-tech reminders:

  • Place your child’s stuffed animal beside you in the front seat as a reminder that they are in the backseat
  • Sit a purse or cellphone on the backseat beside the child’s car seat, forcing you to have to go back there and get it
  • Set up a daily reminder on your phone to check the backseat, ask if the child was dropped at daycare or whatever will help you remember to check the backseat
  • Put a large, obvious sign on your dashboard that says, “Remember to check the backseat for kids”

As of 2018, 19 states have laws that directly address leaving kids unattended in cars, according to kidsandcars.org. In addition, several states have or are considering what are called “good samaritan laws” on the books to protect those individuals who break into a vehicle to save an unattended child or passenger.

This leads to the question of the legality—and, perhaps, morality—of allowing children in driverless vehicles without a licensed driver inside—what if the technology goes awry and he/she can’t get out? And what if the car comes upon a “kill or be killed” situation as it’s ferrying a kid?

What to do when faced with the general “lesser of two evils” scenario is already sending autonomous car manufacturers scrambling for answers to what is known as The Trolley Dilemma.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem by Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, noted philosopher (and granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland), Philippa Foot, presented a unique conundrum to shine the light on “ethical propositions and reactions”—basically, what drives people’s decisions. Called The Trolley Dilemma, it goes like this: you’re driving a trolley down the track and see five workers on the rails in front of you. You try to stop, but the brakes fail and you will hit them. You see a switch to another track, but see another worker on that one. Throwing the switch avoids the five, but kills the one. Not throwing it, saves the one, but kills the five. What do you do?

Most people answer they would sacrifice the one to save the five. The greater good, as it were. This is called utilitarianism—your actions are right if they benefit the majority. Okay.

But then ethicist, Judith Jarvis (JJ) Thomson, took it further: you’re standing on a bridge over the trolley track and see five workers below. A trolley is coming, but can’t brake, surely hitting and killing them. Standing beside you is a person whose girth would stop the trolley if you push them onto the track, causing their death, but saving the five. What do you do?

In this scenario, the majority of people say they would have to let the 5 die. But what’s the difference between this and the other? It’s believed that having a hand in the actual demise of the one person as opposed to simply shifting the track and feeling that worker may actually be able to get themselves out of the way poses a moral difficulty.  As you can see, adding more complexity or shifting the factors gets you wondering if saving someone is really so black and white. From Philippa Foot’s “5 on one track, 1 on another, switch” came JJ Thomson’s “1 heavyset on a bridge can save the 5 on the track,” which, in turn, led to “1 heavyset on a bridget put the 5 on the track to be killed” and creating “the fat villain” perception. After that was Michael Costa positing “5 on a track, 1 on the other, car switched only to loop around and kill the 5”and, finally, Karl Unger’s even more layered, “5 on a track, 1 at his house sleeping in the yard, 2 trolleys collide to save the 5 only to have 1 derail and kill the 1 man in his yard.” The more probabilities you conceive, the more difficult it becomes to decide what is “right.” Hence, The Trolley Problem.

This is what self-driving car manufacturers are up against. If an autonomous vehicle is driving down a road that has a cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and a child runs into the street after a ball, should the car go straight and save the passenger, but kill the child, or swerve left or right, saving the child and killing the passenger?  If left to their own devices, most people say, “Save the child.” However, car manufacturers disagree.

The Trolley Problem highlights the biggest question surrounding the long-term safety of autonomous vehicles in general: the reaction of the automobile to the outside world, and the need to choose between the life of the passenger(s) and either the pedestrian(s) or those in other cars. Unlike the people posed with the conundrum, however, machines don’t have the ability to make a moral decision. They can only react as they are programmed to do. With that in mind, Mercedes-Benz announced that its self-driving cars will protect the occupants in those rare situations. The rationale is that there are already checks and balances in these vehicles to prepare for potential collisions without loss of life. Unfortunately, things are bound to happen, so it’s vital for a decision to be made and fatalities will occur, although with less frequency than they are now. Daimler is willing to assume the risk—as are Audi and Volvo—in an autonomous car accident. But what if the child is not the one on the road, but the one in the car? What kind of checks and balances of child safety are being taken for them?

Preparing for child safety in autonomous vehicles

Currently, there appears to be very little focus on children in the autonomous space, although questions of whether kids should be allowed to be transported in a driverless vehicle by themselves have come up. After all, if he/she is not equipped to grab the wheel and jump in to deal with a difficult road situation beyond the car’s control, what does that mean for their safety and the safety of others?

Whether or not minors should be allowed to travel alone in self-driving cars has 58% of those polled against, 32% for, and 10% undecided. But, consider this: it is an international law that children under certain ages must be secured in a car seat of some sort under the age of 12 or within a certain height and weight range. It also states they can’t sit in front near passenger side airbags and that, in most regions, they can’t be left unattended in a car. If an average sized 8 year-old is traveling alone to a soccer practice in an autonomous car, based on today’s laws that 8 year-old needs to be strapped into a booster seat, in the back of the car, and never left alone due to concerns over hyper and hypo-thermia issues. It begs the question: will those regulations change once the cars, themselves, are running unattended?

Keeping kids safe in driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles are not just coming, they’re virtually here. The more they become the norm, the more this question will need to be addressed. And, as of today, there is no easy answer or solid solution.

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The Autonomous Vehicle: A Look Through History

the autonomous vehicle in action

The wave of the future

The autonomous vehicle, or self-driving car, has become the focus of the automotive world. More and more, you hear that the connected car is the answer to a variety of transportation ills. From Google to Volvo to Ford to Uber and Lyft, the industry of moving you from one place to another is working feverishly to make the once science fiction dream of a driverless vehicle a reality. However, this seemingly 21st century innovation has not only been in people’s minds for centuries, but attempts and working prototypes have been pursued across the ages.

What exactly is an autonomous vehicle?

The autonomous vehicle label has become quite the buzz. But what makes a regular, everyday car into a self-driving connected car? An autonomous vehicle is any car that drives itself through a set of computerized controls hardwired into the automobile’s brain or electronic control unit (ECU). The idea has been the stuff of dreams since as far back as the great Leonardo da Vinci with his horseless carriage idea, an invention meant as a novelty to surprise and delight attendants of festivals during renaissance times that would take centuries to figure out how to build.

While there have been several attempts throughout the years to make a self-driving, fully autonomous car come to life, success has been elusive. However, the interest has never wavered and the automotive world and general public became even more energized with a look into the future that sent minds reeling at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

General Motors and dreams of innovation

World's Fair map

Road map for 1939 New York World’s Fair

General Motors (GM) is no stranger to vehicle innovation. It was the first automaker to envision a type of autonomous technology with the presentation of a computerized navigation system for its cars known as Driver Aid, Information and Routing System (DAIR) back in 1966. The ambitious yet unwieldy invention would lead to the creation of OnStar in the 1980s. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that GM presented their idea of the self-driving car at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

The Futurama bird's eye view

The Futurama, GM’s vision

The tagline of the storied pre-World War II extravaganza was “The World of Tomorrow.” Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to the extraordinary promise of a unique and technologically advanced horizon shown throughout the fairgrounds. GM’s pavilion featured the most popular attraction called The Futurama, a ride that took visitors through what life would be like in the year 1960. While the exhibit was more about urban planning and creating a highway system—which wouldn’t become reality until 1956—tiny radio controlled cars that automatically kept their distance from each other were presented on the roads, a precursor to adaptive cruise control and autonomous vehicle technology. This future vision was crafted by mercurial theatre and industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes. While 1960 has come and gone and the glorious, smooth driving fully autonomous future has yet to be realized, the commitment to and belief in a driverless world is stronger and more pervasive than ever.

Why self-driving car technology matters?

Driving a car is essential to many people’s lives. Getting behind the wheel of an automobile and transporting yourself, others and supplies or equipment for work, play or charity, have led to the continued—albeit sometimes shaky—growth of what is now a multi-trillion dollar automotive industry. The automobile has been in consumer use since Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler created their vehicle empire in 1895 then made even more accessible when Henry Ford turned what was basically a luxury item into something the masses could afford. These horseless carriages have dominated the transportation industry ever since and incorporating autonomous technology to create self-driving cars has been a goal that may well have been prompted by Leonardo’s self-propelled carriage over five centuries ago.

The “Linrrican Wonder,” a 1926 Chandler rigged with a transmitting antenna, became the first documented case of a “driverless car” that same year. It “drove” through the streets of New York City while controlled by a follow vehicle. Having a tracking car may seem to negate the fully autonomous goal of a driverless vehicle, but the Linrrican Wonder maneuvered on a public road in the most populous city in America even back then, giving hope to the automotive industry of a future it continues to fervently pursue to this day.

Huge strides continue to be made in the world of self-driving cars which are propelled by 3 major issues on the road today: traffic congestion, road fatalities and environmental impact. But will driverless cars really alleviate all of these problems?

Alleviating gridlock

autonomous vehicles to help with gridlock

Photo By Hikosaemon via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a two-pronged effect here with autonomous vehicles. Shared self-driving cars lead to less automobiles on the road. Also, operator error causes the bulk of traffic accidents which then leads to even more traffic congestion—slowing down to rubberneck, lane closures, etc. Autonomous vehicle technology incorporates such systems as collision avoidance and adaptive cruise control to create both safer conditions and smart distance between cars.  These two together allow the vehicles to keep pace with and from each other in ways that keep the flow of traffic consistently moving.

Staying alive on the road

autonomous vehicles to address safe driving

2015 saw 35,200 car-related deaths in the U.S. alone. This staggering number has prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to push for policies that more actively regulate self-driving car research and development. Human error accounts for 94% of all fatalities on the highway and implementing innovative vehicle technology in the form of fully autonomous smart cars is felt to be the answer. Again, collision avoidance systems play an integral part in keeping passengers safe and lowering traffic fatalities and accidents in general.

Lower emissions and better fuel efficiency

autonomous vehicles programmed for better fuel efficiency

An autonomous car is designed to be more fuel efficient not only by the mere fact that many use alternative fuels, but the way they travel in conjunction with other vehicles and on the road in general. These vehicles are built to move in such a way that they make the best use of their fuel and brake/accelerate more strategically, thereby reducing whatever gas emissions they produce or drain on a power cell. Traditional and adaptive cruise control (ACC) acts as a strategic partner in supporting this by automatically maintaining an ecologically friendly rate of speed.

The ins and outs of self-driving car technology

What makes a self-driving car drive itself? It’s a combination of a variety of interfaces and connections. Per engineering professor, Sridhar Lakshmanam of University of Michigan—Dearborn, three things are needed to make an everyday vehicle successfully navigate a public road autonomously: a GPS, a system that reads road conditions, and a processor that takes all of that data and turns it into action.

how an autonomous vehicle works

The technology behind autonomous vehicles

The GPS needed is pretty much the same type of system used today. It provides a basic view of maps and where the car can go. Radar and lidar sensors are instrumental in the system that can see road conditions as are on-board cameras.

Radar uses radio waves to distinguish what is going on around the car while a lidar sensor uses lasers to detect the environment, obstacles and more by sending out a series of light pulses at specific intervals to pick up external information. These combine with the on-board cameras to take all of the information of what is going on around the vehicle—the environment and dynamic situations—and send it to the brain so the car can actually react—brake, accelerate, turn, etc.—accordingly.

On-board cameras also contribute to the successful operation of autonomous vehicles. These visually capture the conditions and potential hazards of the road in real time and process that information through sophisticated computer software. The car’s brain then takes that and

Part of this smart communication is vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) interaction. The ability for cars to speak with each other will help in making this driverless future a safe reality. Per the National highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) one automobile can relay various “important safety and mobility information” to another, thereby supporting the three goals mentioned above: alleviate gridlock, save lives and lower emissions. And with safe future comes changes to government.

The ups (and downs) of the autonomous vehicle

Due to the nature of less human interaction,  an autonomous vehicle means fewer parking and moving violations, which provide a good chunk of money into local and state agency coffers. However, the safety and strengthening of the transportation systems save government and taxpayers money and lives. The Brookings Institute breaks it down as follows:

  • An estimated $10 billion per year saved by taxpayers due to the public shouldering the bill for seven percent of vehicle crash costs
  • A savings of $100 billion per year due to the elimination of congestion, damages to infrastructure and resources spent on road improvement.
  • Cutting travel times by sending vehicles to better road options which saves on the cost of fixing roadways and bridges
  • An overall estimated savings of $211 billion a year to state, local and federal governments

With all of this possibility, however, it begs the question: just how ready is the public to hand over the controls they’ve come to know with their automobiles?

The steering wheel (gear shift, pedals…): to be or not to be?

will autonomous vehicles need what drivers are used to?

As mentioned, the motor car is the most influential mode of transportation in the world. It is a staple of modern life and a symbol of autonomy, even in its purest form. Part of that comes from the ability of everyday humans to have total control over their automobile by being able to steer it themselves and operate the different gears and pedals to make it run. But in a fully autonomous, self-driving car, is it really necessary to have all of those accouterment?

Per a recent Kelley Blue Book poll, most Americans couldn’t even begin to imagine embracing a fully autonomous vehicle—called a Level 5 by both NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book. 80 percent of those polled believe human drivers need to have the ability to operate their car and 64 percent claimed they need to be the ones driving their automobiles, not some technology. While there are ranges of feelings about actually using the self-driving capability—short jaunts were felt to need operator control while autonomous vehicle technology would be welcome on long road trips—the space for human intervention in the midst of unforeseen circumstances is still felt to be necessary.

Different levels of autonomy

As mentioned, both the NHTSA and Kelley Blue Book have identified 5 stages of autonomy for cars. Both adhere to the levels as outlined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International. They breakdown as follows:

Level 0: No Automation

The human driver has full control of the car, even if there are upgrades and technological advances in the vehicle. The person behind the wheel is the one who reacts to every situation.

Level 1: Driver Assistance

Most of the operation is handled by the driver. Some, however, like braking, can be automatically managed by the car through the data it retrieves from road conditions.

Level 2: Partial Automation

Again, the human controls most aspects of the vehicle, but some things like cruise control or lane correction are automatically handled by the vehicle as well as acceleration and deceleration based on the information gathered about the drive. The person behind the wheel, however, is expected to be the primary operator, managing the rest of the manipulation of the car as well as taking over from the automated functions should the situation arise.

Level 3: Conditional Automation

Pretty much every task a driver would perform is handled by an automated system. However, here there is the ability for the human to take control when their intervention is requested by the computer.

Level 4: High Automation

There are still a steering wheel, gas and brake pedal, and a gear shift in this level, but all of the driving is automated and there is a failsafe should the driver fail to engage when the system asks for their assistance.

Level 5: Full Automation

The car is completely automated and prepared to handle all road conditions and situations that can and will arise during the ride. The driver is turned into passenger and their assistance is not requested nor needed.

As you can see, these last three levels move from minimal mechanical driver assistance—a human operator maintains control while the car has certain enhancements to help make their drive smoother and safer— into an area where the vehicle is now actually monitoring the driving environment and reacting automatically. This is a future leap that is available in limited models for Level 3 and in test phase with fleet vehicles in levels 4 and 5 under controlled conditions on public roads —Google self-drive now known as Waymo and Uber, for example.

Paving the road to the future

The road to the future

The initial estimate of when driverless cars will truly be on the road is 2050. However, with Ford embracing the autonomous vehicle movement rather than fighting it, Baidu in California, and much more, “The World of Tomorrow” may be just around the corner. The progress to a more dynamic driverless future is constant, so keep your eyes on the road ahead.

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