Television is famous for setting the standard for unthinkable automotive technology, but will Herbie and Knightrider be available for purchase soon? Well, no, but Stanley, Junior, Boss, and Shelley just might be within the next few decades. What are these unfamiliar names? They are the culmination of cutting edge technological innovation that is gracing our automotive industry right now—working toward a car that actually will drive itself.
A History Lesson
The Ford Model T first began to ply America’s streets in the year 1908—with few people of that time understanding that this vehicle would be the beginnings of a new age. The Industrial Revolution spawned the mass production of motor vehicles, allowing Detroit to rise as a manufacturing giant and putting rubber on the map in Akron, Ohio through companies such as Goodyear and Firestone. While almost all of these corporations are still around today, the post-industrial nature of the Western economy has turned to advanced engineering and technology to fuel the drive for new innovations.
What’s The Buzz?
I’m sure Henry Ford never imagined a car would ever operate without a driver, but today’s Tin Lizzie successors have much more competition these days. Concept cars coming from joint ventures between Stanford University and Volkswagen AG as well as one between the General Motors Company and Carnegie Mellon University, are working toward producing vehicles more akin to those featured in The Jetsons than the beloved antique motorcars forged from the imaginations of the Industrial Era.
Today’s driverless car revolution has its origins in a U.S. Department of Defense contest where participants were required to create the first autonomous car. The VW-Stanford team won the contest in 2005 with a Touareg named Stanley. In 2007, the title was stolen from the team—their Passat named Junior was pushed out of the running by the GM-Carnegie Mellon team’s Chevy Tahoe SUV named Boss.
Following the competition both teams started working on more advanced technology, attempting to make these cars more efficient, compact and with more power. Indeed, Shelley is an Audi created by the team at Stanford that operates without a driver (it doesn’t even have physical controls) and recently completed an amazing journey up Pike’s Peak, completely alone. That accomplishment may bring about a significant change in the automotive industry, allowing consumers to sit back and relax while the car does all the work for them. This will drastically change road-trips, as well as prevent some fender-benders.
Not So Risky Business
There is still a lot of speculation on how safe these autonomous vehicles are or how effective they will be in real-time traffic. However, there are other innovations being developed that aren’t quite so dramatic. One example is a Collision-Avoidance program being developed by researchers at Subaru, called EyeSight. This system is not intended to drive the car for you, but rather aid through limiting distractions on the road, overcoming blind spots or other factors that may impair a diver’s focus or vision.
Kinks are still being worked out and it is all speculation whether consumers will cede control of their cars to computers. In any case technological advances are introducing possibilities once deemed elaborate fantasies just one generation ago.
Article modified March 31, 2014.