What are the most important technologies that led to autonomous transportation?

What are the most important technologies that led to autonomous transportation?

By Adam Kimmel

Autonomous (or self-directed) technology is transforming industries ranging from automotive to insurance to healthcare. The opportunity to realize passive yet intelligent control is enabling innovation almost as fast as its creators can dream it up. However, the speed of advancement makes us wonder how the revolution started. The following is a timeline of the most important technologies that led to the advent of autonomous transportation.

Autonomous Propulsion

Leonardo da Vinci – The Self-Propelled Cart, 1480

The inventor prescribed a path for a self-propelled cart that was intended for use in the theater. Powered by high-tension spiral springs, the cart traveled along the path toward its intended destination. It also boasted a remotely-controlled handbrake. While the cart did not respond to external stimuli, the automotive community considers the cart one of the first automated mobile vehicles in history.

A self-propelled cart replica at museum Clos Lucé. Source: Wikipedia

Autopilot Gyroscopes

Wiley Post – Mechanical Mike (air travel), 1933

Sperry Gyroscope Co. developed a prototype autopilot for Post’s flight around the world in 1933. It employed gyroscopes that were used to collect data from all three dimensions. This data was used to calculate the position and motion of the plane regardless of conditions, enabling simultaneous flying and navigating. For that reason, gyroscopes have proven transformative in the development of autonomous vehicles, and are still used today.

Cruise Control

Ralph Teetor (Dana, Inc.), 1945-1958

German automotive engineer Ralph Teetor of Dana Corp. developed conceptualized cruise control while riding in his attorney’s car. The rocking motion of acceleration and deceleration inspired him to develop a mechanical throttle to regulate the vehicle’s speed. Development over the next decade led to commercialization of the technology that first autonomously regulated the speed of a car. Following commercialization, cruise control was first offered by GM on its 1959 Cadillac models.

Vehicle-Mounted Camera

James Adams and Les Earnest (Stanford Univ.) – Stanford Cart, 1961-71

Stanford University mechanical engineering graduate student James Adams built the cart to validate the assumption that a car could drive on the moon while being controlled on Earth. The original cart used a car battery to drive and a television camera on the top to navigate. An inherent lag in the timing of signal communication from Earth to the moon disproved the primary assumption of Adams’s research. Five years later, Les Earnest proposed converting the cart into a road vehicle using video as its navigation. This new application employed a computer to control the cart based on images received through the video camera. The cart was one of the first instances that used a battery as the primary model of power, pairing electric drivetrains with autonomous driving.

Tsukuba Mechanical – Passenger Vehicle, 1977

Extending the work started by the Stanford Cart, Japanese firm Tsukuba fabricated a vehicle capable of traveling 20 miles per hour using two cameras attached to the outside of the car.

Dynamic Vision

Ernst Dickmanns – VaMoR, 1987

Like many key inventions that have led to autonomous cars, Dynamic Vision was borne out of the aerospace industry. Dickmanns worked on space shuttle orbiter re-entry. When modifying the path to shuttle re-entry proved impractical due to the fragility of the spacecraft itself, Dickmanns transitioned his research to a remote sensor for Europe’s first communications satellite. It was then that Daimler-Benz approached him to develop (among other things) an autonomous car to commemorate the centennial of their first car in 1886. Dickmanns and his team outfitted a five-tonne Mercedes van with cameras and sensors to sense its environment and to process information.

The hurdle that Dickmanns finally cleared was eliminating the delay between information receipt, process, and response using computers that did not yet have the processing power of today’s versions. His team developed a solution termed the “4D approach”, with the fourth dimension being a predictive estimate of spatial positioning based on data from the other three. This shifted focus from the history of previously-captured images to areas of high contrast, or changes in color or density.

LIDAR, 1960s-present

The wide scale use of lasers in the 1960s enabled the invention of LIDAR (light detection and ranging). Like its predecessors SONAR (sound detection and ranging) and RADAR (radio detection and ranging), LIDAR creates a three-dimensional map around the vehicle by sending laser pulses to a remote object. The map is created by measuring the time it takes the laser to return to the origin. It is this map that triggers the autonomous controls to respond in real time. Along with autonomous vehicles, LIDAR has had significant impacts in oceanic applications like storm surge, hydrodynamic and shoreline modeling. Its first application was space exploration, where it was used in the Apollo 15 mission to map the surface of the moon.

A LIDAR unit mounted to an autonomous car. By Daniel Cardenas

At its present stage of development for autonomous vehicles, the LIDAR box spins 360° continuously and has a depth perception accuracy within 2 cm. Most images of current autonomous vehicles include a LIDAR sensor that sits on the roof of the vehicle. Coupled with modern GPS systems, LIDAR represents the most enabling technology for the recent momentum in the autonomous vehicle industry.

The use of a battery to provide power and the inclusion of gyroscopes and lasers are largely responsible for the current state of autonomous vehicle industry. While significant technical challenges remain, such as external object discernment as an example, we are closer to self-driving cars than ever before due in large degree to these advanced technologies.


As shown in the timeline above, technology innovation is constantly pushing us past existing boundaries and paradigms. While inventions often take several years for widespread commercialization and adoption, they can also lead to the creation of new building blocks that can be used to build the next transformative platform. Just as the current autonomous technology was largely born out of the aerospace industry, new technology developed through commercialization of these vehicles may very well lead to innovation in a future industry we have not yet even considered.

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