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On Self-Driving Cars: Revolution or Evolution

October 15, 2013

I’m keenly interested in the move toward self-driving cars, so an article in USA Today caught my eye last week: “Self-driving cars? They’re (sort of) already here.” As the headline suggests – apart from the parenthetical hedge – the autonomous auto isn’t a far-off fantasy anymore. The odds are that some of us will be playing Michael Knight before the end of the decade.

While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the exciting things Google is doing with its fleet of autonomous Prii, just as earlier generations were wowed by Norman Bell Geddes vision of automatic cars in his Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair, it seems that self-driving cars aren’t going to arrive in a technological flash. Rather, they’ve been sneaking up on us bit by bit for a century.

One might trace their development all the way back to Charles Kettering’s electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac. Sure you had to flip the switch, but that car cranked itself. If not to 1912, then maybe you trace the self-driving car to 1940 and the practical Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission. Surely a car that shifts its own gears is a forerunner to a self-driver. And if not GM, then you might credit Chrysler and its “Auto pilot” feature introduced in 1958. Sure, the marketing folks who named it may have over-promised a bit, but that early cruise control system certainly was an essential step toward autonomy.

Much more sophisticated systems entered the market in the last decade or so. Lexus gave us “Dynamic Laser Cruise Control” with the 2000 LS 430. This device not only maintained a regular driving speed, it also automatically slowed or stopped the car in reaction to traffic ahead. (It also proved that fancy marketing names were still very much in style.) Adaptive cruise control, like the technologies before it, made its way from luxury marques to more modest models and is now a rather widely available option. The same is true of parking assist systems, in which the car can steer itself into a parking space. They first appeared in Lincoln and Lexus models, and then migrated to Ford and Toyota offerings.

“Active lane keeping” appears to be the big story for 2014. We’ve had passive systems, in which an alarm sounds if the driver weaves or drifts, for ten years, but “active” systems are just that – active. Infiniti’s Q50 will steer itself should the driver let go of the wheel while at speed, even through broad curves. The feature is a combination of camera and radar units that “read” the road and a “drive by wire” setup through which the front wheels are steered by motors wired to the steering wheel. (There’s no mechanical connection between the front wheels and the steering wheel.) Granted, it’s up to you to get the car on and off the freeway but, while there and with the cruise control and lane keeping engaged, the Q50 essentially drives itself.

Infiniti stresses that its active lane keeping is a driver assist system. It’s meant to ease the burden rather than take it all, but that’s no different than any of its technological predecessors. All of these devices seem destined to meld into a fully functional autonomous car some day, and that day might just be sooner than any of us think.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

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