Technology | DOI: 10.1145/1965724.1965731
Self-driving cars are inching closer to the assembly line, thanks
to promising new projects from Google and the European Union.
At the 1939 World’s Fair, General Motors’fabled Fu- turama exhibitintroduced the company’s vision for a new breed of car “
controlled by the push of a button.” The
self-driving automobile would travel
along a network of “magic motorways”
outfitted with electrical conductors,
while its occupants would glide along
in comfort without ever touching the
steering wheel. “Your grandchildren
will snap across the continent in 24
hours,” promised Norman Bel Geddes,
the project’s chief architect.
Seventy years later, those grandchildren are still waiting for their self-driving cars to roll off the assembly
lines. Most analysts agree that commercially viable self-driving cars remain at least a decade away, but the
vision is finally coming closer to reality, thanks to the advent of advanced
sensors and onboard computers
equipped with increasingly sophisticated driving algorithms.
In theory, self-driving cars hold out
enormous promise: lower accident
rates, reduced traffic congestion, and
one of Google’s seven self-driving, robotic Toyota Priuses steers its way through a tight,
closed circuit course.
technologies to allow
cars to join organized
a lead car operated
by a human driver.
improved fuel economy—not to mention the productivity gains in countless hours reclaimed by workers otherwise trapped in the purgatory of
highway gridlock. Before self-driving
cars make it to the showroom, however, car manufacturers will need to
clear a series of formidable regulatory
and manufacturing hurdles. In the
meantime, engineers are making big
strides toward proving the concept’s
For the past year, Bay Area residents
have noticed a fleet of seven curious-looking Toyota Priuses outfitted with
an array of sensors, sometimes spotted
driving the highways and city streets
of San Francisco, occasionally even
swerving their way down the notoriously serpentine Lombard Street.
Designed by Sebastian Thrun, di-
rector of Stanford University’s AI Lab-
oratory currently on leave to work at
Google, the curious-looking Priuses
could easily be mistaken for one of
Google’s more familiar Street View
cars. The Googlized Prius contains far
more advanced technology, however,
including a high-powered Velodyne
laser rangefinder and an array of addi-
tional radar sensors.