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The timeline of autonomous vehicles

It's not unusual for the words ‘autonomous car' to conjure up images of flying vehicles and futuristic cars that would not look out of place in a sci-fi movie. However, although autonomous vehicles may seem futuristic, the technology of self-driving vehicles has been in development since the 1920s.
The timeline of autonomous vehicles

If you consider yourself a car guru, then read through the fun facts to see exactly how well (or badly) you know your history about autonomous vehicles.

Take a look at this detailed timeline:


In 1925, a radio-controlled driverless car known as the ‘Linrrican Wonder’ was driven on the streets of New York by a radio equipment firm known as Houdina Radio Control. Its antennae picked up radio impulses from a second car following behind it which communicated a signal to the Linrrican Wonder’s circuit-breakers that operated small electric motors within the vehicle, allowing it to move in response to the transmission.


Sponsored by General Motors, Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama exhibit depicted the world’s first radio-controlled cars. The basis of this vehicle’s autonomy was attributed not only to the vehicle itself, but the roadways too. The vision of this vehicle was that it would be able to move via electromagnetic fields provided by circuits in the roads – which seems to have set the trend for the next few decades’ innovation.


In the early ‘50s, a company called RCA Labs built a miniature car that was successfully guided and controlled by wires on the lab floor. Due to the success of this experiment, the decision was made to create a full-size test based on this same theory. Thus, in 1958, a full-size system was successfully tested and demonstrated on a large stretch of public highway in America.

How did this experiment work?

Detector circuits were buried in the pavement, displayed as lights along the edge of the road.

These detector circuits sent impulses to guide the car in the right direction, and also to determine the presence of any heavy or metallic objects on the road’s surface.

Special radio receivers and visual warning devices helped to stimulate automatic steering, acceleration and braking.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s:

During these two decades, more advances were made on autonomous vehicles, mainly based around the premise of radio-controlled cars receiving transmissions from devices embedded in the roadway. In the 1960s, the United Kingdom’s Transport and Road Research Laboratory tested a driverless Citroen DS that responded to magnetic cables embedded in the road.


Advances were made and autonomous vehicles were now being developed that used a combination of computer vision, radio signals and sensor-based automation.

By 1987, HRL Laboratories tested the first off-road map and sensor-based autonomous navigation. This vehicle was able to travel, unmanned, over complex terrain that included steep slopes, ravines, rocks and vegetation. In 1989, Carnegie Mellon University had revolutionised the use of neural networks to steer and control autonomous vehicles.


There were several advances in autonomous vehicle technology in the 1990s, including:

1994: The twin robot vehicles VaMP and Vita-2 of Daimler-Benz and Ernst Dickmanns of UniBwM drove more than 1,000km on a Paris three-lane highway in heavy traffic at speeds of up to 130 km/h. They demonstrated autonomous (although with interspersed human intervention) driving in free lanes, convoy driving, and lane changes with the autonomous passing of other cars.

1996: Professor Alberto Broggi launched a project where an autonomous car completed a journey of 1,900 km over six days, with an average speed of 90km/h, using stereoscopic vision algorithms to understand its environment. The vehicle was able to operate autonomously for 94% of its journey.

1997: In San Diego, California, about 20 automated vehicles - including cars, buses, and trucks, were demonstrated publicly to thousands of onlookers, operating in mixed traffic and in various roadway scenarios.

2000s and beyond:

Following the year 2000, there have been many exciting advances. The technology has moved away from focusing on electromagnetic impulses in the roadways, and has been developed to equip the vehicle with its own GPS, stereoscopic vision and satellite information coupled with advanced computer systems to help the vehicle navigate itself. This technology has led to many luxury vehicles being equipped with cruise control, and even autopilot – a functionality which has been available on aircrafts for many years.

Tesla has already taken a few steps into the ‘future’ by ensuring that all Tesla cars produced by them have self-driving capabilities. Even though they aren’t available in South Africa yet, it seems to be only a matter of time before we will be able to sit back, relax and be driven to our destinations.

As exciting as it is to think about stress-free drives where you are free to nap and do as you wish, you’re probably still driving your own vehicle right now. Make provision for human error and protect yourself and your pocket in the event of a collision by having car insurance from a reputable company. Contact MiWay for an obligation-free vehicle insurance quote.

31 Jul 2017 16:31