Home / Tech News / Sit back, relax, and enjoy a ride through the history of self-driving cars

Sit back, relax, and enjoy a ride through the history of self-driving cars


Seemingly within just a few years, autonomous cars have gone from science fiction fantasy to reality. But while it seems like this technology emerged virtually overnight, the path to self-driving vehicles has taken a whole lot longer than that.

While it’s not easy to compress the near-100 year history of the field into just eight milestones, we’ve done our best. While there are dozens of autonomous vehicle projects which didn’t make our list, here are the major stops on the road that you need to know about as self-driving cars get set to change the face of transport as we know it!

The driverless dream begins

History of self-driving cars

It didn’t take long after the birth of the motorcar for inventors to start thinking about autonomous vehicles. In 1925, the inventor Francis Houdina demonstrates a radio-controlled car, which he drives through the streets of Manhattan without anyone at the steering wheel. According to the New York Times, the radio-controlled vehicle can start its engine, shift gears, and sound its horn, “as if a phantom hand were at the wheel.”

As an amusing aside, Houdina’s name sounded sufficiently like that of the famous escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini that a lot of people thought this was Houdini’s latest trick. Houdini visited the Houdina Company and got into a physical altercation, during which he broke an electric chandelier.

John McCarthy’s robo-chauffeur

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In 1969, John McCarthy — a.k.a. one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence — describes something similar to the modern autonomous vehicle in an essay titled “Computer-Controlled Cars.” McCarthy refers to an “automatic chauffeur,” capable of navigating a public road via a “television camera input that uses the same visual input available to the human driver.”

He writes that users should be able to enter a destination using a keyboard, which would prompt the car to immediately drive them there. Additional commands allow users to change destination, stop at a rest room or restaurant, slow down, or speed up in the case of an emergency. No such vehicle is built, but McCarthy’s essay lays out the mission for other researchers to work toward.

No Hands Across America