Autonomous vehicles have been around longer than we may not yet realize. In 1925, inventor Francis Houdina programmed a radio-controlled vehicle through the streets of Manhattan. According to the New York Times, revved up its engine, shifted gears and horsed its horns as if a phantom hand were at the wheel.
With a name similar to that of the famed illusionist Harry Houdini, New Yorkers thought this was just another Houdini prank. (Read 7 Autonomous Vehicle Myths Debunked.)
In 1969, John McCarhty of AI-fame, wrote an essay called “Computer-Controlled Cars” that described an automobile that would drive roads via a television camera input that uses the same visual input available to the human driver. He predicted users would type their directions in a computerized keyboard.
He predicted the car would speed up or slow down, change destinations, stop for emergencies — even halt for restrooms. That thesis was revised 40 years later by Carnegie Mellon researcher Dean Pomerleau, who detailed a system of neural networks that would input road stimuli and steer controls in real time.
In 1995, Pomerleau and colleague Todd Jochem steered their Navlab self-driving minivan (they had to control speeds and braking), coast to coast from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to San Diego, California, on a journey they called “No Hands Across America.”
Seven years following, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) offered a $1 Million USD Grand Challenge for an autonomous vehicle that could truck 142 miles through the Mojave Desert. Of the 15 competitors, the winning entry blew up less than two hours after it started.
After that, you have a panoply of attempts from companies that included Toyota, Lexus, BMW and Ford, to Google’s secret Waymo project, where autonomous vehicles allegedly drove 300,00 miles without accident.
Major automotive companies such as General Motors, Ford, Mercedes Benz, and BMW were next, with Nissan announcing they’d release driverless cars by 2020. Each added semi-autonomous features such as self-steering, the ability to stay within lanes, accident avoidance and more.
The first autonomous fatal accident occurred in Florida, where its human occupant was hit by a 18-wheel tractor-trailer, stirring ethical debates. Meanwhile, Audi and Nvidia promoted their next-generation cars, with Nvidia the first to harness AI capabilities of hardware, making it the dominant force on the market despite recent hiccups.
Recently, Amazon gifted India 10,000 driverless rickshaws to combat climate change.
Here’s a rundown on our other autonomous vehicles.
1. Autonomous Ambulances
Autonomous gyro-ambulances innovated (and still in their factories) by Russian engineer and inventor Dahir Semenov, avoid traffic by rising over vehicles on telescopic legs and moving between the rows of cars.
Once they land, they drop to their wheels, revert to “regular” vehicle mode and release 20-inch drones from their roofs. The drones contain capsules of fire-extinguishing power as well as pull-out walkways to take on board and evacuate up to five victims.
What could go wrong?
According to the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, driverless ambulances are a possibility but will patients want to ride in them while their lives on the line? In repeat studies, researchers found that patients would choose a “regular” ambulance any time over the autonomous one.
After all, why risk further damaging their health or chance of survival?
2. Autonomous Bikes and Scooters
On March 31, 2016, Google Netherlands YouTube channel shared a clip of an April Fools’ Day gag with a self-driving bike that showed children licking their lollipops as they cycled.
Chinese-based scientists, Shi Luping and his colleagues at the Center for Brain Inspired Computing Research of Tsinghua University, took notice and successfully developed a ground-breaking electronic chip that they inserted into an autonomous bicycle.
As New China TV reported: “The bicycle can detect and track targets, avoid obstacles, self-balance, understand voice commands and even make independent decisions as a result of the chip's simultaneous processing of versatile algorithms and models.”
What's the point of it all?
According to a 2019 article in Wired, Uber, self-dubbed “Amazon of transportation”, predicted that autonomous bikes and scooters would “mosey themselves over to battery-charging stations, or wheel themselves into maintenance depots, or redistribute themselves to exactly where users need them to be.''
But, how’s a bike supposed to jump over a 10-foot fence when approached by a menacing dog? Or how can they dodge that squirrel in its path, or even avoid tumbling into a pit-hole when it’s zooming itself back to a charging pod?
Further, the standard bikes or scooters we know today cost a mangy $500 USD. Now add on all those fancy gyroscopes and sensors, and the cost’s skyrocket way beyond our budgets.
And for a superb autonomous bike, you need the superb remote sensing laser lidar that’s costs $1000s.
Plus, those bikes will need constant and expensive maintenance and repair.
Bikes on two wheels work because you have a human steadying them. The human can even string bags of groceries on either handle and carry a backpack full of books on their back. Now imagine loading those same bags on a bike without a rider, and, well...the bike’s a goner.
Still, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi insists Uber can get you anywhere, no matter your travel mode.
Autonomous bikes and scooters are part of that plan.
3. Autonomous Trucks
The first self-driving vehicles won’t be cars, ambulances or bikes — but trucks, according to Bloomberg. In fact, driverless semi-trucks, or robo-trucks, are already legally roaming the highways of Nevada and California.
The United States Postal Service also uses autonomous Peterbilt trucks, run by self-driving truck company TuSimple, to move between Phoenix and Dallas. For now, TuSimple has a safety driver behind the wheel for the 1,000-mile trip, as well as an engineer in the passenger seat monitoring the autonomous systems.
In the future, the startup aims to provide “depot-to-depot” service without drivers.
If you encounter a driverless truck on your travels, they're that innocuous you won’t even notice them.
“They’re polite,” Chuck Price, chief product officer at TuSimple told Florida’s Insurance Journal. “They use turn signals. They merge properly. They do all of the things that a professional driver is trained to do.”
And TuSimple, he added, would rather that nobody knows about the robot driver.
“We are actually trying to minimize marking,” Price added. “Because we find that people tend to either get distracted in amazement or distracted in the devious way and try to mess with us.”
4. Autonomous Buses and Shuttles
In Summer 2019, 5G self-driving smart buses started trial operations in Zhengzhou, China, funded in part by the Chinese government. Buses roam just over one mile with three stops. They have intelligent sensors and eight laser radars (instead of rear-view mirrors) that give them 360-degree input of their environment.
“It looks like the buses have eyes like humans and can see what's going on around them.” Peng Nengling of the Zhengzhou Yutong Bus Company told New China TV.
“In five years time, we hope to have many more of these buses operating in our city’s streets.”
Meanwhile, Stockholm’s fleet of driverless “AkMed” busses — uglier than China’s with their orange triangular noses and blinking eyes — sludge through the slush on a near-mile stretch from business area Kista to central Stockholm, carrying up to 12 passengers each.
Traveling no faster than 12 mph, they use smart technology to navigate sensor-enabled bus stops and traffic lights.
Autonomous buses have also been either tested or developed in cities that include the Netherlands, Berlin, Singapore, Switzerland, Britain, Greece and various states in the U.S. (such as Florida and California). Michigan and Melbourne have unleashed autonomous shuttles.
We still waiting to see a Greyhound bus adopt that technology.
5. Autonomous Trains
In January 2020, a new autonomous bullet train connecting the Chinese cities of Beijing and Zhangjiakou, reached its destination in 217mph, making it the world’s fastest autonomous train in operation.
Operating entirely through a computer, seats have 5G touchscreen control panels, intelligent lighting, thousands of real-time safety sensors and removable seats for passengers in wheelchairs. Facial-recognition technology and robots are used in stations to assist with directions, luggage and paperless check-in.
What could go wrong?
Plenty. As passengers of one autonomous Sydney metro train found in 2019, when the autonomous train overshot a platform and failed to open its doors, causing delays across the line.
Meanwhile, autonomous trains control more than 42 cities around the world on 64 fully automated lines, with over 50% of them in Asia, according to the International Association of Public Transport.
Automation’s benefits are obvious: There will always be drivers at hand while robo-trains eliminate the risk of human error.
“Technology improves the reliability and safety of trains,” Bob Nanva, national secretary of the Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), told ABC News.
Think of disgruntled police losing revenue from auto accidents and violations; auto insurers raising their prices to stay in business; parking lots repositioning their facilities as revenues drop; and dislocated chauffeurs and mechanics.
On top of that, you could have congested city streets with cars circling blocks, waiting for the owners to need them - and problem passengers beating the interior of cars, screeching at them to go either faster or slower.
Fun to think about, isn’t it?
And, so, while driverless vehicles may curb pollution, jump over traffic to rescue victims from burning buildings, transport blind people and replace human error with mechanical perfection, autonomous vehicles won’t be able to solve all of our problems—but we can certainly count on them to drive new problems for us to steer through.