Over the last nine decades there have been may milestones in self driving technology, but the answer to what was the first self driving car depends on your personal definition of true autonomy.
Some see the first self-driving car as occurring all the way back in 1925. Houdiana Radio Control was founded by a electrical engineer in the US Army, and used radio waves emitted from a car travelling behind to control the car up ahead. This ‘phantom car’ went down New York city streets, up Broadway and down Fifth Avenue, in the middle of rush hour.
This concept of an umbrella level of control outside an individual driver can be found today in the growing enthusiasm around ‘platooning’: groups of vans and tracks on a specialised automated highway would be able to accelerate and brake simultaneously when controlled from a computer.
Up until the 1980s, there were various attempts to automate driving that didn’t directly use a computer. In 1960 Ohio State University devised a system in which electronic device in the roadway could guide a vehicle. In the same decade, the UK’s Citroen DS utilized magnetic cables in the road to guide a car without a driver. Even the development of power steering for commercial vehicles in 1951 can be considered as adding a level of automation to the driving experience.
To many, the first self driving car by a true understanding of the notion occurred in 1986. In this year legendary German inventor Ernst Dickmanns used a skidpad at Bundeswehr University Munich to test a Mercedes Van, the first ever vehicle to be driven entirely by computer. Inter-governmental organization EUREKA would spend €749m developing autonomous cars from 1987-1995.
Dickmann’s work led to the next major milestone in self driving cars, when in 1994 computers controlling two car’s gas pedals, steering and brakes first drove among regular traffic, on France’s Autoroute 1.
Autonomous driving in now slowly enters the mainstream through companies such as Waymo and Uber, yet the first self driving car was over two decades ago. If you consider Houdiana’s invention self driving, it was almost a century ago.