The bumpy road: An incomplete history of the self-driving car

Will it or won’t it? Inside the long road to bringing self-driving cars to fruition.

As part of a push to offload cash-burning projects and cop a few greenbacks in 2021, Uber has decided to vend its driverless car unit, Advanced Technologies Group, to Silicon Valley start-up Aurora. The $4 billion deal, expected to be sealed by March, will bring an end to the ride-hailing company’s hopes of manufacturing its own autonomous taxis.

It has been reported that Aurora, which currently flexes the backing of Amazon and Hyundai, is also set to receive $400 million in investment from Uber, which will, in return, secure a 26 per cent holding in the San Fran company. “By adding the people and technology of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group to the incredible group we’ve already assembled at Aurora, we’re shifting the landscape of the automated vehicle space,” said CEO Chris Urmson on Monday.

The move comes despite the fact that Uber founder, Travis Kalanick, saw driverless technology as a solution that would eventually make the taxi-app firm’s services more economical. The company does, however, hope to team up with Aurora when the time comes to roll out the vehicles on its network.

Not only is Uber shedding a costly project, but it has also jettisoned from a ride that has been far from smooth. You may recall the fatal episode when one of its self-driving Volvo SUVs, travelling at 39mph and manned by a safety operator streaming an episode of The Voice on her smartphone, collided with, and eventually killed, an Arizona pedestrian in an incident that was the first of its kind. GAFA bigwigs also turned their heads earlier this year when news broke over the sentencing of Anthony Levandowski, a former engineer at Google’s robocar division Waymo, who purloined trade secrets before joining the rival venture at Uber.

And these are only a few flash points and mishaps in the long, storied quest for hands-free cruising. There was, for instance, the widely publicised driverless experiment of 1925, in which Francis Houdina unleashed a radio-controlled car on Manhattan roads. Described “as if a phantom hand were at the wheel”, by a New York Times report, the self-steering four-wheeler, dubbed American Wonder, possessed the ability to ignite its own engine and switch between gears to an audience of thousands, before swaying at 62nd Street and Columbus Circle and eventually crashing.

Credit: Dllu

Then there was the golden age of consumerism in the 1950s – a period where the visions and fantasies of guide wires in roads were dashed away by high costs, low demand and the still-novel thrill of driving itself. This was swiftly followed by the Jetson Sixties, when Stanford researchers harnessed the power of cameras and new computer tech to create the first robot that could navigate and avoid collisions.

Towards the end of the following decade, the world’s inaugural autonomous car – one that could reach speeds of 20mph and track road signs through a pair of video cameras – was debuted by Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Lab, on the streets of Japan. But it was only at the end of the Noughties when firms and start-ups began tapping into the autodrive’s commercial potential. And, ironically, it was Silicon Valley, not the auto industry which was too busy corking the haemorrhage that came with the 2007 financial crisis, that pounced first.

By 2009, Google had launched its hands-free-driving project. With Sebastian Thrun – the co-inventor of Google Street View and winner of a 2005 folklorish AV-building competition hosted by the Pentagon’s skunkworks arm – at the helm, the company, within its early days, disclosed that its prototypes had collectively driven 300,000 incident-free miles. By year five, it had birthed a model which had neither a steering wheel, a brake pedal or a gas pedal, a major coup given that the likes of Ford, BMW, and General Motors were trying to commandeer their own slice of the robocar pie by this point.

Then, in 2018, just under a decade since its founding, Waymo successfully unfurled the world’s first driver-free taxi service to a few hundred suburban “early riders” in Phoenix, Arizona, albeit with human safety operators still in situ. Today, rollout to all app users in the area is expected at any moment.

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