The foundation of the self-driving car, which has become a reality that snuck up on most of us over the last couple years was laid 103 years ago and it is all Charles Kettering’s fault. Kettering was one of the most brilliant minds to ever direct his brain power to cars and because of him we have an Audi that drove itself unassisted from LS to Las Vegas to the Consumer Electronics Show a couple months ago. So what did Kettering do in 1912 that started us down the road to “transportation pods” and machines that we’ll someday get into and watch the world whiz by without actually doing anything to control them? He invented the electric starter and had it installed into the 1912 Cadillac. That was the moment that the whole equation changed and we began to inch toward a future that has largely arrived.
Sounds dumb, right? How could the lowly electric starter have anything to do with autonomous machines with hundreds and hundreds of horsepower? Simple. Today’s cars (be they the fully self driving type or the ones that virtually are but manufacturers cannot claim for legal reasons) are loaded with automation and the very first automated thing we ever had in a car was the electric starter. Once that bridge was crossed engineers started looking of what else could be automated rather than if automation was possible. We can laugh about it now but the electric starter was an incredible innovation for its day. Crank starting a car was no fun and many people suffered snapped arms and fingers when the handle would whip around on them, kick back, or just misbehave. The ability to step on or push a button and have the car whirr to life was straight out of science fiction….just like the idea of taking your hands and feet off the wheel and pedals at 70mph today.
After the electric starter a lot of work was put into automation that was less about the car and more about the passenger. Stuff like power windows appeared in the 1940 Packard via a complicated electronic/hydraulic system. In 1941 some Lincolns got power windows as well. In 1958 the Chrysler Imperial showed up on the scene with cruise control and that was a big deal. You were able to get the car to maintain speed all on its own! In 1964 the first car with a true climate control system was sold and that happened to be a Cadillac. 1978 would be the next major leap in creating the technology base for a self-operating car because that’s the year Bosch unveiled anti-lock brakes and Mercedes installed them into their big S-Class flagship sedans. Suddenly emergency braking was automated because a computer could do it better than we could. In the 1980s BMW was the first to offer traction control on their stuff so now we had cars that could both understand when they were skidding and when they were spinning the tires and stop both from happening. Things were getting interesting.
Stability control appeared first on the mass market in Toyotas and Mercedes during the 1995 model year and these were systems that tied multiple data systems together. Now the traction control, ABS, and other systems were interacting. Once that circuit was made all that was necessary was the development of the hard technology that would actually control the cars in an active sense and not in the reactionary sense that they were in the 1990s.
In 1992 Mitsubishi introduced a laser system that told you if you were too close to the car ahead of you. This was only on Japanese models but it became the basis for what would become today’s every proliferating adaptive cruise control. In 1995 Mitsubishi again released some neat technology. This was a system that would control speed with the throttle and downshifting but it would not apply brakes. It did know how much distance you had but you needed to romp the pedal to keep from plowing into the guy ahead of you. In 1999 Mercedes debuted the first truly modern adaptive cruise control as we know it today (albeit not as good) on an S-Class.
While the adaptive cruise control stuff was coming together, running on a parallel track was the integration of GPS into cars. Rudimentary systems were available in Japan from the early/mid 1980s and we all probably owned a dash mounted unit at some point but making the GPS part of the car was an integral piece in the self-driving puzzle. In the US market the first car to have a built in GPS were 2004 Oldsmobiles (of all brands?!). It would be in 2007 when Toyota had its more advanced system that was essentially a “living” map did that piece of the self driving puzzle get solved.
Here’s some promo for the 1994 Olds GPS –
Volvo had a breakthrough in 2008 with its lane keeping system. This was more of a warning system than anything else but it introduced the idea that the car could “know” where it was on the road, especially in relation to where it was in a lane. That technology rapidly expanded and morphed into cars that would provide some physical feedback if the vehicle was wandering from side to side. Ford’s system guides the car back into the center of the lane as to others now.
So the reality was in 2008 all of the basic technology existed to have a car that (a) knew where it was going (b) could tell where it was on the road (c) could tell where it was in relation to other cars and adapt (d) had the means necessary to control itself in a panic stop style situation. As we have seen many times in this evolution, it was tying it all together that would be the key and the reality is that there are more than a couple cars out there, outside of the Audi that can do virtually what the Audi did. Acura, Cadillac, Mercedes, and others will not ever tell you that their cars are capable of driving themselves but the reality is that they are damned close. We DO NOT recommend taking your hands off the wheel and going to sleep on the highway but we have logged some serious miles in many of these cars and they are amazing. Recently we drove hundreds of miles on two lane roads in a Jeep and my feet touched the pedals once, to get us started. After that, unless we stopped for food or a kid pee break, they sat flat on the floor.
While we’re not going to completely editorialize on the subject, what’s the big harm in having your commuter pod handle its business while you read the paper, catch up on a book, or do whatever else in traffic on your way to the office? That’s not driving anyway, that’s torture steering. Charles Kettering could not have known that the introduction of the electric starter would create such a sea change in the way that engineers and people looked at cars but it did. Heck, maybe he did know. It would be fun to transport him to this era to see what he’d say. Chances are, “I KNEW they’d figured that out!” would be one sentence.
One thing we will mention is the Google car. The big failure there is that it was designed by computer guys and not automotive guys. What you got was a hideous looking thing that while functional wouldn’t appeal to Steve Erkle let alone the general public. The problem with the Google self-driving car is that it LOOKS like a self-driving car. The key to the success of the whole self-driving deal is to deliver the goods in a package that is familiar to people, thereby lessening the shock, awe, and “awwww hell no,” levels of rejection that the Google-mobile has already gotten.
Self driving cars, they’re here and they’re only going to get more and more engrained into the automotive world at large.