Self-Driving Cars in 92

by Colin Berkshire

I first rode in a self-driving car in 1992. Yes, 24 years ago. It was great.

So I am pretty excited about self-driving cars coming to the road now because for me it has been a decades long wait. I’ll probably be one of the first to buy one. I like the added safety, reduced stress, etc. I’m hoping that they won’t even have a steering wheel. I would like to just sit and let me get to my destination while I don’t pay attention.

Let me share with you how it is possible for a self-driving vehicle to have existed in 1992. It was a fun project. I worked for a think tank company where we were chartered to come up with new products to market.

In the 1970s “Cruise Control” became a popular car feature. Cruise Control would maintain the car’s speed without having to hold down the accelerator peddle. When it first came out there was a lot of worry about safety. But, well, it turned out that safety was increased through reduced stress while driving and more attention spent watching traffic than the speedometer. Most cars today have Cruise Control.

Extending this idea we invented “Driving Control.” You would get on a freeway, press the “Driving Control” button and sit back. The car would reliably stay in the lane and would navigate turns in the road, always being lane centered.

You see, we discovered a dead simple way of doing this. If you mount a camera on the driver-side mirror and point the camera straight down, facing the road you are in business. This is the only sensor you need, except for a down facing light to light up the stripes for night use.

The camera would look at the painted white line and simply measure where the line was relative to the fixed camera. We discovered that we really only needed a single scan line of the camera. We didn’t need a 2-dimensional view at all. We just needed to see that white or yellow line, which could be dashed or solid. If the line was too far out then turn the car slightly to the left, and if the line was too far in then slightly turn the steering wheel right. This was absolutely enough to stay in-lane for any highway.

If you don’t believe me, find a private road with a line, get in your car, and look out the driver-side window at the line below. You don’t need to look forward. Just look down. Maintain the car’s distance from the line and you will navigate the lane perfectly around all curves.

We drove thousands of miles of interstate highways using this system. It could always find the line and measure the car’s distance from the line. It navigated curves in the road gracefully and casually…even mountainous highways

There were some glitch cases: left-hand exits would confuse it. If the line was missing it would turn control back over to a person. It didn’t work in snow because the line could not be seen. But it did drive thousands and thousands of miles successfully.

We believed that this simple device could be sold as a retro-fit for commercial long-haul tractor trailer rigs. Eventually we thought manufacturers would build it in, since it was cheap to make. We researched the laws and nothing prohibited its use as long as the driver maintained one hand on the steering wheel.

Of course, the driver had to watch for traffic, and speed up or slow down, and be on the alert for left-hand exits. (He could squeeze the steering wheel to take control and navigate straight through the exit.)

Later we added a camera to the right side mirror and we could sense the lane widening for a left-hand exit and switch to the right-side camera and avoid the problem with left-hand exits.

Ultimately we didn’t pursue this as a commercial product. It wasn’t that this was a bad idea. It was simply that another project had a greater profit potential and we followed that one. It worked out well.

So you see, I may have been one of the first people to sit in a self-navigated automobile.

You betcha I am excited to see real self guided cars become reality. It’s been a long wait.