While the world is only just getting used to the idea of driverless cars being on the roads around us, not many know that some of the first autonomous cars were driving around all the way back in 1986. This research culminated in a mammoth 158km trip on the German autobahn, navigating at speeds of up to 175km/h without any human intervention.
The autonomous car projects of the 1980s began when Daimler-Benz approached leading engineer Ernst Dickmanns to collaborate on a project in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the company's first car (the Benz Motorwagen in 1886). Moving into their second century of car manufacturing, Daimler-Benz proposed a large-scale research project to develop new technologies — one of which was to be autonomous driving.
Before this project, however, Dickmanns' team created a proof of concept — the VaMoRs. VaMoRs was a 5-tonne Mercedes van equipped with cameras and other sensors, modified so that all necessary controls were handled by the computer — steering wheel, brakes and throttle. The software largely looked at the white lines on the road, and major colour differences in images.
VaMoRs made its first autonomous drive in 1986, for safety reasons taking place on streets without traffic. Due to the incredibly slow (at least by today's standards) processing speed of the computers the team were using, Dickmanns had to come up with a way to navigate in real time using a computer that processed images in a matter of seconds, rather than nanoseconds or even milliseconds. He and his team called this the '4D approach'.
This system estimated spatial positioning and velocity, without the need to store previously captured images. It was also designed to focus only on the most relevant details of visual input, like areas of high contrast or changes in colour or texture. The VaMoRs made its move onto public roads just a year later in 1987, driving autonomously on the Autobahn at speeds of up to 96km/h — the maximum speed the van was capable of. Dickmanns does note that their license for testing the vehicle specified that at least person had to be inside while it was driving — with their reasoning being that their own safety would make them be more cautious with the car's testing.
The PROMETHEUS Project
In the same year, the Prometheus project — PROgraMme for a European Traffic of Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety — was initiated under the European Eureka research funding system, receiving €749 million in funding to become the largest R&D project ever seen in the field of driverless cars.
The initial plan was to use buried cables along the Autobahn to guide autonomous cars down the highway, but Dickmanns' previous successes were enough to prove the efficiency of the much more flexible computer vision system.
Prometheus was a little bit sexier than the original VaMoRs, involving two modified 500 SEL Mercedes named VaMP and VITA-2. Thanks to the large amount of funding, the computers used for this project were also upgraded, using up to sixty transputers (a type of parallel computer) for the processing power needed.
The Prometheus project achieved its first culmination point in 1994, when the two vehicles were driven autonomously through Paris, able to navigate and change lanes through traffic. For this demonstration — during which passengers were on board to experience the new technology — each car used two cameras with different focal lengths for each hemisphere.
A year later in 1995 the cars took a trip from Munich in Germany to Copenhagen in Denmark, reaching speeds of up to 175km/h on the Autobahn and driving an estimated 158km without human intervention. This trip was meant as a way for the team to collect data on what systems needed to be improved in subsequent generations of autonomous technology.
Some of the challenges faced then are ones that engineers of autonomous vehicles still face today. One that Dickmanns singles out as being particularly tricky is that of 'negative obstacles' — that is, potholes or other missing materials in the driving surface. It only becomes more difficult if the potholes are, say, filled with water — although flooded roads have proven to be difficult even for human drivers to judge.
Read more about Ernst Dickmanns' work here:
While the world is only just getting used to the idea of Google's driverless cars being on the roads around us, not many know that autonomous cars were driving around all the way back in 1986. This was thanks to one pioneering German man with a vision for giving the gift of sight to computers — Ernst Dickmanns.