c. 1500 - Leonardo Da Vinci’s self-propelled cart
Even though automobiles wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, Leonardo da Vinci laid out the design for a cart that could move on its own. Using the tension from springs to propel the cart, steering could be set in advance to follow a predetermined path. This invention is considered by some to be the world’s first robot.
1866 - The Whitehead Torpeo
In the mid-1800s, Robert Whitehead developed a way for torpedoes to propel themselves underwater several hundred yards, maintaining depth and direction. A game-changer for naval fleets at the time, the invention quickly spurred further development and by WWII torpedoes could home in on targets using sonar technology. This new technology would lead to advancements in aircraft and weapons — and eventually autonomous devices like self-driving cars.
1925 - The “American Wonder”
In 1925, Francis P. Houdina developed an automobile that could be controlled remotely by radio signals. He publicly demonstrated the driverless, radio-controlled car, called the “American Wonder” or “Phantom Auto,” on New York City’s streets, travelling along Broadway and Fifth Avenue during a traffic jam.
1945 - Teetor Cruise Control
While not commercialized until 1958, cruise control was actually invented 13 years earlier by engineer Ralph Teetor. Teetor hated riding with his attorney, who would slow while talking and speed up while listening, so he developed an electromagnet contraction that would smooth out the ride, thus inventing cruise control.
1979 - The Stanford Cart
Worked on by a number of Stanford University researchers over the 1960s and ’70s, the Stanford Cart began as a moon rover project. In 1966, the project was taken over by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), which pioneered the video processing technology that would later be used to provide input to autonomous vehicles. In 1979, the cart successfully traversed a cluttered room without any human input.
1987 - Dynamic Vision
In 1987 German engineer Ernst Dickmanns outfitted a Mercedes-Benz van to detect objects in the road from a series of cameras outfitted on the vehicle. This “dynamic vision” technology processed visual input while taking into account time delays, and provided commands to the car’s steering, throttle and brake systems. This imaging is now used in cars equipped with driver-assist features such as lane recognition, adaptive cruise control and pre-collision braking, as well as in the earliest models of self-driving vehicles to identify and avoid potential road hazards.
1995 - General Atomics MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator, developed by General Atomics for the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1990s, remains one of the most widely used pieces of military equipment in service today. Categorized as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Predator is commonly referred to as a “drone” because it is piloted remotely using radio and satellite signals. Predator drones were first deployed in 1995 and have been used in military operations for more than 20 years. Technologies used in these drones have been adapted for cars, including radar that can see through smoke or clouds and thermal imaging cameras that enable travel by night.
2004 - DARPA Grand Challenge
First launched in 2004, the DARPA Grand Challenge was a series of prize competitions created to encourage development of autonomous vehicle technologies. The first competition required vehicles to self-navigate 150 miles of desert roadway. While no car completed the route in the first year of the competition, subsequent challenges have seen dramatic leaps in capabilities. The Urban Challenge in 2007 required vehicles to obey all traffic laws as they detected and avoided other robots on the 60-mile urban course.
2009 - Google Self-Driving Car Project
In 2009, Google launched its self-driving car project. Using GPS, remote light-ranging technology and other sensory devices, Google's fleet can detect pedestrians, cyclists, vehicles, road work and more for up to 240 yards in any direction. The aim is to fully emulate the behavior of the ideal human driver. In 2015, the company started testing its fully self-driving cars on public roads
2015 - Tesla Autopilot
Tesla Motors released its semi-autonomous "Autopilot" software in 2015, which includes hands-free control of highway and freeway driving, automatic lane changing, side-collision warnings and automatic parallel parking. What’s more, it was delivered as a software update to Model S owners overnight.
2017 - Waymo Early Rider Program
In 2016, Google's autonomous car project became Waymo, a self-driving technology company. In 2017, Waymo invited residents of Phoenix, Arizona, to join in a public trial of self-driving vehicles and provide feedback on their experience, which will be used to shape the future of how self-driving cars work. While Waymo is staying tight-lipped about a potential release date, it’s anticipated that self-driving cars of some sort will be commercially available by 2020.