Before cars started driving themselves, planes were flying without pilot assistance. And that's the genesis of the flying car of the future. Vanessa Azolli looks back so we can look forward.

So, by now we were promised flying cars by Doc. Brown… 

It certainly doesn’t look like we’ll be getting that any time soon. So where exactly are we at with this technology? Can cars actually drive themselves yet… like for real? What can we expect to see in the coming years? 

Well… let’s go back to the beginning. 

Wiley Post became the first person to fly around the world by himself in an airplane. Can you imagine trying to fly a plane, while trying to not get lost at the same time? That’s because he didn’t. Post used a Sperry Gyroscope autopilot to help him while flying and navigating at the same time. This happened in 1933. Only 20 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in flying the first ever airplane.

By the 1940s, torpedoes were just driving themselves around using sonar technology. Perfect timing for WWII, no?

Society was pushed into the world of autonomous vehicles by an, albeit brilliant (in my opinion), marketing scheme. At the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, the “World of Tomorrow” exhibit was debuted. It featured a ride called Futurama (it didn’t originate with Dr. Zoidberg…), sponsored by none other than the General Motor Company (more commonly known as GM today) that took guests on a ride through a 35,738 square foot scale model of what the future would look like in 1960. At the time, most households did not have a family vehicle. The exhibit featured something called automated “freeways” that ran at high speeds and was promising that the men would be home to their wives and children by 5:00 pm. The freeways would be government-funded, would create jobs for construction workers building them and would be direct into the city’s main core. Each vehicle would run on a track in the road’s surface and would have radio signal so that vehicles wouldn’t be able to follow too closely. The thought process was so that each person would drive to the freeway as we do today, then engage the automatic systems and sit back and relax until their exit. This would mean that every household would then need their own car – how exciting! Even more exciting for GM’s annual financial report, I’m sure… 

In 1964, Futurama II was ready for everyone to experience. This time, most of what was promised in the original Futurama had come to fruition. So what could they possibly have on display now? Why, autonomous vehicles, of course! Futurama II was what sci-movies and television have basically looked like ever since. These autonomous vehicles that were hinted at in the original Futurama were basically hovercrafts. Now what is so wrong with wheels? After going through the exhibit, each guest received a pocket tab with the saying “I Have Seen the Future.” So cheesy…

We’ve spent just over 70 years on relatively the same idea as the original Futurama. I mean, the technology has changed significantly, but our primary focuses of autonomous vehicles are still safety, reducing congestion, access, speed and sharing the road with an always increasing number of drivers. 

The fact that autonomy came to air, water and even other planets first was not just the result of poor planning. In fact, these environments are much more… well… forgiving than our local roads when it comes to testing out this new technology. Small children and animals don’t often wander into the flight path of a Boeing 737.

In the late 60s and through the 70s, autonomy got even closer. Unmanned probes were being sent to space, missiles were guiding themselves, and a number of underwater vehicles found themselves in the depths of the sea for long lengths of time. But when it came to the cars we drive, the technology just needed to be perfect. It was easier to create roads and freeways that functioned closer to railroads than roadways, but most cities and municipalities just didn’t have the infrastructure to support that type of change. 

The technology behind creating these smart cars was often compared to a cockroach. These cars needed to do three things; sense, process and, react. “Ninety-eight per cent of driving is just following the dotted line. It’s the other two percent that matters,” said Burkhard Bilger in his piece entitled “Auto Correct” published in the New Yorkerin 2013.

In the 80s, a German pioneer named Ernst Dickmanns launched the vaMoRs project where he rigged up a Mercedes-Benz van to drive itself on a length of the Autobahn highway that had not yet been open to the public. And in 1987 he succeeded. This van drove a distance of just over 20 km at speeds hovering around 96mph (154.5 kph). What a success! He had rigged up computers and video cameras that could sense the van’s surroundings while also powering the steering wheel and pedals. 

In 2004, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) created a contest that saw dozens of teams get together to design a fully-functional autonomous vehicle, competing for $1 million grand prize. The intent of this contest was to obtain a design so that by 2015, over 30% of the US’ military vehicles would be autonomous. A year into the contest, there had not been a winner chosen. However, in the second year, there was much more success. Using the Mojave Desert as a testing site for these vehicles, things seemed to be working well. However, that was without any distractions. The group created the “Urban Challenge”, a mock-up of a typical city landscape so these cars could navigate their way through. And they were surprisingly succeeding! 

So where are we now? 

There is one fully autonomous vehicle in production that you can actually purchase today. It’s called the Navia and its hefty price tag hovers around the $250,000 mark. This vehicle is currently only approved for use in closed environments (resorts, golf courses, etc.) and maxes out at 12 miles per hour. And, the farming, warehousing, factory and mining industries are home to many large vehicles that operate on their own, as well. 

Many car manufacturers today are offering additions to their vehicles that will park, keep lanes and brake for you, but they’re not quite the self-driving machines we want to ultimately have one day. 

Google has famously been using their self-driving cars since the late 00s. Sebastian Thrun and Anthony Levandowski created the Pribot in 2008. It was a Toyota Prius that was modified with the specific intent of going out and getting pizza for the team. The success of the Pribot got the attention of Google, who later promoted Thrun to be the head of a brand new initiative after putting the Pribot through many difficult tasks (like San Francisco’s famous twisty road, Lombard St.) Thrun brought Levandowski on board, as well as the winner of DARPA’s Urban Challenge on board to design a fleet of self-driving vehicles to the Google Gods. 

In late 2014, Tesla sold their popular sedans with a $4,000 upgrade called the “Technology Package.” At the time, the upgrade just had a bunch of sensors placed around the car’s bumpers that didn’t do anything. But, a year later, Tesla rolled out a software update to the vehicles called Tesla Version 7.0 that gave these 60,000 or so vehicles autonomy. These cars could then maintain speed, switch lanes, break and even park itself (something that, like I mentioned before, is available through many other manufacturers as well.) Tesla drivers were told that they still needed to remain alert as the software didn’t have FULL autonomy just yet. If it lost a signal, the drivers would be alerted through their dashboard and expected to take over again. I guess no one told this gentleman:

The world is really excited for autonomy, but I’m not sure if we’re totally ready for it just yet. A lot of people’s thinking, processing and reacting skills will need to be changed. Not to mention the laws that will be need to be adjusted, and cities’ infrastructure that will need to be changed. We’ll see where we get in the next few years, we’re certainly getting eerily close.

Vanessa Azzoli

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Vanessa Azzoli

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