top of page

History of Autonomous Driving

Author: Jiahao Wu

Editors: Ethan Liu and Liane Xu

Artist: Selena Zheng

How will automobiles develop in the future? Will they expand towards utopian fantasies such as flying or super-fast cars? Regardless of the future, for now, one of many goals is autonomous driving: being able to drive a car without human control.

Electric automobiles are not a new concept. The first vehicles made in the 1700s were powered by steam. However, they took a long time to start up and had a small range. In the early 1800s, inventors started building electric-powered buggies. Karl Benz invented the first gas car in 1885. In 1890, William Morrison built the first electric car in the US. Even though it was very basic, it piqued the interest of many Americans. Within a decade, a third of all automobiles were electric. In 1898, the first hybrid car that was run by both electric and gas was created, which would influence hybrid cars a century later. Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T brought a new convention to making vehicles: an assembly line that reduced the time to make a car drastically. An electric start was added in 1912. With the discovery of oil, gas-powered vehicles began to populate. Turn signals were added much later in 1939, and airbags in 1973. In the late 80s and 90s, electric doors and windows, sunroofs, CD players, and keyless entry systems were standard features that accompanied a car. In the modern-day, even more features bring us closer to autonomous driving: Bluetooth, GPS, wifi, and advanced safety systems.

The Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) separated the road to fully autonomous driving into six levels. Level zero is where the driver performs all driving tasks manually. Level one is where the driver still controls the vehicle, but some driving assist features may be included in the vehicle design. Level two includes automated functions, such as acceleration and steering, but the driver must still engage with driving. Level three is the stage in which a driver is not needed, but must be ready to take control of the car. Level four describes a vehicle performing all driving functions in certain conditions. Level five is a vehicle fully capable of driving in any condition. Currently, we only have cars from level zero to three.

The general idea of a self-driving car is to have a 360-degree sensor that sends information to a software. The software uses algorithms to interpret the surroundings, following traffic rules and replacing a driver’s decision making. For example, self-driving systems create and maintain an internal map of their surroundings, based on a wide array of sensors, similar to radar. Uber’s self-driving prototypes use sixty-four laser beams with other sensors to construct their internal map; Google’s prototypes, using a variety of methods, used lasers, radar, high-powered cameras, and sonar at different points. The software then processes those inputs, plots a path, and sends instructions to the vehicle’s “actuators,” which control acceleration, braking, and steering. Hard-coded rules, obstacle avoidance algorithms, and predictive modeling help the software follow traffic rules and navigate obstacles.

As technology advances, fully autonomous automobiles become more of a reality. In the future, cars may only have passengers and no drivers. Additionally, if automobiles are controlled by a system, the impact of accidents and traffic flow will decrease, if not disappear. If this goal is achieved, mankind will have progressed immensely in terms of technology and safety.



"Automated Vehicles For Safety". 2020. NHTSA.


"Evolution Of The Automobile". 2020. Auto-Related News, Trends, & Tips - I Drive Safely.

"Self-Driving Cars Explained". 2020. Union Of Concerned Scientists.

13 views0 comments


bottom of page