The past, present, and future of self-driving cars 

Welcome to the future!
Welcome to the future!
Image: AP Photo
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Cars will eventually drive themselves. But it’s probably going to take longer than we hope.  

Realists in the industry, such as Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, have dumped some cold water on the expectations that truly autonomous vehicles are just around the corner. “All carmakers are aiming to achieve Level 5 autonomy [the highest level, in which cars can navigate under all conditions with no human intervention], ” he said. “I need to make it perfectly clear….none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy. We are not even close.”

Perhaps no technology has existed this long in the public imagination without actually existing in the real world, notes Marcel Maron, a PhD candidate in city planning at the University of California, Berkeley. “There wasn’t a 20-year lead up to the iPhone,” he says.

But that’s the self-driving situation today. First popularized in the early 20th century, self-driving cars have long been “just over the horizon.” Yet figuring out how to get a car to drive itself safely has proven to be among the most challenging problems for engineers and computer scientists. Silicon Valley is only just beginning to learn how extraordinarily difficult it is. 

“Developing and deploying self-driving vehicles at massive scale is the engineering challenge of our generation,” said Dan Ammann, the CEO of GM’s self-driving unit Cruise, in May.

Quartz pulled together the most significant milestones and predictions about AVs (automated vehicles), which have confounded optimistic executives and politicians for a century. It shows AVs passing through successive hype cycles throughout the 20th century, with hopes rising every few decades, only to be dashed a few years later. Despite passing through the latest “trough of disillusionment,” this time computers and sensors are theoretically capable of autonomy outside the lab. They’re being installed in millions of cars by major automakers. The challenge now will be refinement, affordability, regulation, and adoption. 

Here’s the history (and predicted future) of AVs. It’s adapted from Bloomberg Philanthropies (pdf), Dan Sperling’s book Three Revolutions, and interviews with industry insiders and researchers.

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  • 1000 BC: Sailors invent the first autopilot by attaching a weather vane to the tiller allowing them to set a course that automatically adjusts.
  • 1914:  The first plane is outfitted with an autopilot device in France by Lawrence Sperry allowing pilots to rest over long flights.
  • 1925: A remote-controlled car, American Wonder, cruises down Broadway in New York City without a driver igniting a pop culture fascination with AVs.
  • 1939: The World’s Fair in New York gives America a taste of the imagined 1960s with GM’s Futurama exhibiting cars with automatic speed control and collision avoidance driving through suburbia.
  • 1958: Chrysler Imperial is marketed as the first car with cruise control.
  • 1962: An Ohio State University team builds what is believed to be the first AV and first terrestrial vehicle with a computer filling the trunk, back seat, and most of the front passenger seat to control steering, braking, and speed.
  • 1966: The SRI research institute in Silicon Valley builds the first version of Shakey, a robot to able to plan and execute a route indoors for the first time. Here’s what it looked like.
  • 1967: Ethical dilemmas facing AV algorithms are formally discussed. British philosopher Philippa Foot proposes the Trolley Problem, a dilemma about who should be killed when a lethal collision is unavoidable.
  • 1977: Japan’s Mechanical Engineering Laboratory in Tsukuba, Japan shows up the “first truly autonomous car” which navigates at less than 20 MPH using onboard cameras to follow white street lines.
  • 1979: The four-wheeled Stanford Cart robot uses computer vision to successfully navigate an obstacle-filled room. The feat takes five hours.
  • 1994: Portable computing power finally catches up with the promise of autonomous driving. The European Union’s PROMETHEUS project successfully sends two AVs over 625 miles on three-lane highways around Paris at up to 80 mph (130 km/h), the first time machine vision manages lane changing and passing.
  • 1995: In Pittsburgh, a partially autonomous vehicle drives more than 2,000 miles to San Diego, with more than 98% of the miles being “hands-free,” according to sponsor Carnegie Mellon University’s NavLab.
  • 1997: GM and Honda begin to demonstrate real-world self-driving capabilities.
  • 2004: The Pentagon’s special research unit DARPA holds the “Grand Challenge:” navigating a 142-mile wilderness course from Barstow, California to Primm, Nevada. None of the 15 teams finish. The best performance is by a Carnegie Mellon University team, which completes 7.5 miles.
  • 2005: The second DARPA Grand Challenge. Five of 23 finalists finish. A Stanford University team wins.
  • 2007: DARPA’s launches the third Challenge: an urban course involving traffic, intersections, and street signs. Six vehicles finish.
  • 2008: Commercial AVs start to arrive in controlled environments. The first AV dump truck manufactured by Japan’s Komatsu is delivered to Chile’s Gabriela Mistral copper mine.
  • 2009: Google officially launches its effort to build an AV.
  • 2010: Google announces its self-driving car prototypes are safely driving down Bay Area roads.
  • 2011: Nevada is the first American state to legalize AVs, passing legislation to explicitly permit their operation on state roads.
  • 2013-14: Morgan Stanley sees “complete autonomous capability” in cars as early as 2018 and full market penetration by 2026.
  • 2014: Uber CEO Travis Kalanic says the future of Uber must be driverless but reassures drivers that the “driverless car is a multi-decade transition.” He writes: “Let’s take a breath and I’ll see you in the year 2035.”
  • 2015: Tesla promises full autonomy within three years. Ford’s then-CEO Mark Fields told CNBC the company plans to have its own self-driving vehicle (Level 4) by 2021: “no gas pedal, no steering wheel, and the passenger will never need to take control of the vehicle in a predefined area.”
  • 2016: The 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic is amended to accommodate AVs. The treaty had stipulated “every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle. It now explicitly allows autonomous features that can be overridden or switched off by the driver.
  • 2016: The first urban AV minibus starts operations in Switzerland. The 12-person vehicle can travel up to 15 mph. Silicon Valley startup Otto makes the first commercial freight delivery by autonomous tractor-trailer: 50,000 beers in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
  • 2016: Lyft cofounder John Zimmer predicts most Lyft rides will be in AVs by 2021 and private car ownership will start disappearing in major US cities by 2022 (Lyft’s IPO filing this year pushed that target for majority autonomous to 2029).
  • 2016: Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn tells TechCrunch that highway driving, and then city driving, will soon be autonomous. “All of these steps are going to come before 2020. […] 2020 for the autonomous car in urban conditions, probably 2025 for the driverless car.” Tesla’s Elon Musk says a fully autonomous Tesla will drive from New York to Los Angeles “hands-free” by the end of the following years (we’re still waiting). Volvo promises 2021 for its own model (it’s now pushed that back considerably).
  • 2017: “My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car,” says University of Calfornia San Diego’s robotics researcher Henrik Christensen. “Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out.”
  • 2017: Gill Pratt, Toyota Research Institute’s CEO tempers expectations: “I need to make it perfectly clear….none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy. We are not even close.”
  • 2018: Self-driving services using safety drivers ramp up. Aptiv and Lyft give their 25,000th autonomous ride in Las Vegas. May Mobility delivers its 10,000th shuttle trip in central Ohio. Waymo starts charging for its commercial self-driving car service, Waymo One, in Arizona.
  • 2018: Uber’s self-driving Volvo with a safety-driver at the wheel strikes and kills a pedestrian temporarily derailing its autonomy program.
  • 2019: Tesla CEO Elon Musk doubles down on promises to deliver full-self driving in 2020 with more than a million robo-taxis on the road capable of generating as much as $30,000 a year for owners.
  • 2019: Other carmakers pull back. “We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” admits Ford Motor’s CEO Jim Hackett, who says their first version in 2021 will be significantly constrained. GM’s self-driving unit, Cruise, delays the commercial debut of its own autonomous ride-hailing service for more testing. No timeline is given. Few startups and carmakers are now willing to give specific timelines for their delivery of fully self-driving cars.


  • 2020: Japanese automakers plan to debut the world’s largest demonstration of AVs on public roads at the Tokyo Summer Olympics
  • 2023: The Israeli government plans for passengers will be able to travel by automated taxis through Tel Aviv through a project by Mobileye and Volkswagen, one of the first cities in the world to do so.
  • 2035: IHS Markit predicts (pdf) 21 million vehicles—a fraction of global auto sales—will be sold as capable of full autonomy (SAE Level 4 and Level 5), mostly for dense cities and high-income suburbs.
  • 2040: The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) predicts (pdf) three out of four vehicles will be fully autonomous by 2040.