In the 1969 National Geographic feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” the idea of driverless autos centered on retro-fitting roads and highways, making them over into “guideways.” An excerpt:
The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.
“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.
“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”•
It hasn’t worked out that way. The eyes and ears of the operation–the brains, really–will be within the vehicle with an assist perhaps from wi-fi–enabled gadgets on the outside; any contributions from driving surfaces will be secondary. Key to the “formal education” of cars will be the sharing of information among them, which will permit constant learning. Perhaps someday they’ll be smart enough to tell us how to replace millions of jobs lost in the trucking, taxi, delivery and limousine industries.
From a smart interview Jason Anders of WSJ conducted with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, whose company is tasked with supplying Teslas with autonomous capability:
Tesla announced that all of its coming vehicles are going to have your technology. Is Elon Musk pushing things too fast?
If you don’t develop the technology and deploy it, it never gets better. At some level, you have to put it on the road. But what’s important is it’s a massive software problem. So companies like Tesla who have a great deal of software capability have an advantage. There’s a rigorous methodology of developing software. The software becomes better and better over use.
What can’t the cars do today?
A whole lot of stuff. We’re going to have an AI inside the car that’s going to look around corners. So even if you’re driving, the AI might prevent you from an accident. There’s all kinds of things that the AI could predict on your behalf.
Can the car be doing too much?
The thing to realize is the quality of the software improves over time, whereas people’s performance of driving decreases.
What about at first, when very few cars on the road are driverless?
Making sure we don’t cause an accident is something we can control, and we ought to do that as quickly as possible.
But the cars will learn from every other car’s experience. We’re going to see capabilities of computers grow way faster than at any time in the history of our industry.•