The Big Bang that launched the autonomous car movement


Unless you are living in an underground bunker and trying your best to ignore the auto industry, you are aware that the car business is now hurtling madly toward a future called “autonomous driving.”

Automakers around the world, tech companies that want to be automakers, auto parts makers, municipal planners and even operators of delivery fleets and taxi companies all are marching toward a reality of cars and trucks that will steer themselves, brake when drivers are not paying attention, change lanes by themselves and, eventually, pick you up at your house and take you to work with nobody at the steering wheel.

You may have wondered: How in the world did all this start?

The answer surprises many.

There was a Big Bang on a Saturday in November 2007, and chances are you missed it.

“That was the moment,” agrees Red Whittaker, a leading robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has spent his career exploring and patenting ways to automate mining, farming and industrial vehicles.

“That day in 2007 was the moment when concepts that had been around for years suddenly came out of the laboratory and into the world. And unless you were aware of the decades of research that had been going on, the whole thing probably came as a complete surprise to you.”

It was on a closed Air Force base in Southern California that day that the autonomous-driving industry was born. The U.S. Department of Defense – as in the Pentagon – had invited a couple hundred of the country’s most advanced transportation science and computer problem-solving thinkers to conduct a 60-mile obstacle course race – primarily to make a point. The Defense Department wanted to demonstrate that it was possible, practical, safe and maybe even financially attractive to make automobiles drive through a city with nobody behind the wheel.

As the country’s “real” auto industry geared up for its annual holiday season blowout sales, the California gathering was largely overlooked. But in the months and years that followed, future-minded thinkers realized that the race had been an auto industry game changer.

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