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For the longest time self-driving cars seemed to be a dream of the future. Today that dream is becoming a reality with the new release of autonomous cars on the market. These origins date back many years ago.
The research for a self-driving car began as early as the year 1925. Francis Houdina was the first person to create an autonomous radio-controlled car that “can start its engine, shirt gears, and sound its horn” (Dormehl). With the limited technology at the time, he was able to realize his vision. The car was able to drive down “Broadway in New York City…trailed by an operator in another vehicle…” (Engelking). Houdina’s invention was very impressive and scientifically advanced for the time.
The next big milestone for self-driving cars would happen in 1968. John McCarthy, “one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence” (Dormehl), wrote an essay on this “for other researchers to work toward” (Dormehl). His research suggested building a car with “a computer…equipped with television camera input that uses the same visual input available to the human driver” (McCarthy). His essay showed that there were problems that needed to be solved in order to move forward with the creation of the car. They needed to find the right computer fast enough to do the job, and they needed the car to be safe enough. He wasn’t sure if the technology used was reliable enough, it would need more research and development. The car was never built.
The next big milestone happened in the early 1990s with the help of Dean Pomerleau. Studying at Carnegie Mellon University, Pomerleau wrote his PhD thesis on how “neural networks could allow a self-driving vehicle to take in raw images from the road and output steering controls in real time” (Dormehl). Neural networks are systems that are aimed to mimic the way humans act (Dormehl). This new research was a lot more effective than the previous ones, making this an important milestone in the autonomous car journey. In 1995, Pomerleau and researcher Todd Jochem took their car from Pennsylvania to California, in a challenge titled “No Hands Across America”. They successfully got the car to steer them all the way to California. In doing so, they “knew the limitations of the system [and knew] there was some risk” (Pomerleau). Them completing this drive at the time, “would be the system’s biggest test yet” (Baker).
Although there had been successful trials of autonomous cars, the technology wasn’t ready to be made commercially any time soon. Along the way, car companies slowly added new features to everyday cars. In the 2000s, “self-parking systems began to emerge — demonstrating that sensors and autonomous road technologies are getting close to ready for real world scenarios.” (Dormehl). In 2003, the Toyota Prius was the first car to introduce self-parking technology. This gave a first look to what the near future in car technology could hold.
It was in 2009 that the realization of self-driving cars was finally becoming a reality, with the help of Google starting its project on self-driving cars, under the name Waymo. This was a very important step because “within 18 months, they had built a system that could handle some of California’s toughest roads” (Davies). A few years later, Elon Musk announced that Tesla will also begin creating self-driving cars. Tesla was able to create a function call Autopilot, in which the car can change lanes by itself, among other things. In 2014, Google unveiled “a prototype of a driverless car without any steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal, thereby being 100 percent autonomous” (Dormehl). This new wave in technology was not something the rest of the car companies could ignore. In order to keep up, many followed researching to release their own self-driving cars.
Almost a decade after Waymo first began, Google was finally ready to begin releasing it to the public. Google allowed few people to “[test] the company’s autonomous vehicles” (Hawkins) by using a Waymo taxi service in Phoenix. In November 2019, Google finally released their self-driving car, available to “a few hundred [people], in a closed beta” (Evans) in Phoenix. Although it has been a slow journey to the self-driving world, it is now that it has begun happening. It won’t fully transition any time soon, but we can’t ignore that the technology is approaching and is inevitable.
The future in self-driving technology is endless, which is something that will greatly impact our lives, in as many ways as we can count. Although this vision has been an unattainable dream for a long time, the future has finally arrived. The reality of self-driving cars isn’t just a distant idea, it is something happening in the present. It took a while to get here but driving as we know is in for a ride.
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