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Self-Driving Cars Debuted On California's Highways 20 Years Ago

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On August 7, 1997, along a stretch of the 15 freeway near Miramar, San Diego, a fleet of 21 vehicles began a Congressionally-mandated demonstration of an automated highway system. The future of self-driving cars was on full display.

"Highways of the future may feature relaxed drivers talking on the phone, faxing documents, or reading a novel while an automated highway system [AHS] controls the vehicle's steering, braking, and throttling and allows for 'hands-off, feet-off' driving," the Federal Highway Administration writes of the test that began 20 years ago today. And while faxing may sound a bit outdated (and, frankly, reading novels, too), their vision was pretty spot on. The technology of an "automated highway" has since evolved into an autonomous vehicle; regardless, the demonstration (dubbed Demo '97) ushered in a new era.

Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, and UC Berkeley were all participants the Demo '97 program. As was Carnegie Mellon University, the university largely credited with creating the first modern autonomous vehicles in the 1980s, and which still leads research in the industry today.

As the FHWA continues, Demo '97 was the result of a federal highway transportation bill that aimed to curb the growing issue of freeway traffic.

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As required in 1997 by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), NAHSC [the National Automated Highway System Consortium] will conduct a proof-of-technical-feasibility demonstration project north of San Diego to show that AHS is a viable and practical option for meeting travel demands and enhancing mobility without building new highways. The demonstration on August 7 through 10, 1997, will be a full-scale, live, multivehicle demonstration of AHS technologies that will provide stakeholders, elected officials, the media, and the general public with a glimpse of the potential safety, environmental, and efficiency benefits in a real-world, real-time setting. The demonstration also will show that the technologies needed to create an automated highway already exist or can be developed shortly.

"Every 10 years traffic is doubling, but your lane-miles are not doubling," Dr. Pravin Varaiya, director of the California PATH program said in an NAHSC video of the event. "So, either we're gonna have lots more congestion, lots more spreading out, or we have to be smarter. And, one of the ways of being smarter is towards automated highway systems and the set of technologies which will bring that about."

The fleet of vehicles, which included eight Buick LeSabres according to KPCC, employed radars and some 93,000 guidance magnates in the road to complete their four-day, 8,000-mile feasibility demonstration along Interstate 15.

"Those cars were using human drivers, and steering, but they were using radars to pace off the vehicles in front of them and also following magnets in the pavement,” Malcolm Dougherty, director of CalTrans, told KPCC. "Back then, that was very innovative. Today, we know we can’t put magnets in the pavement everywhere for cars to follow so now the modern car that has equipment like this is following the lane lines, using cameras."

Today, self-driving cars employ a battery of cameras that continuously monitor the surroundings of the vehicle. "Our vehicles use their sensors and software to detect other roadway users, such as motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as objects like vehicles and road work, from up to two football fields away in all directions," Waymo, Google's self-driving vehicle company, notes. Google began its self-driving vehicle program in 2009. Today, some 36 companies, including Uber, Telsa, and Apple, have joined in making self-driving cars a reality.

“Maybe not today, but I think that’s definitely what we’re looking at in California for the future,” then-Senator Barbara Boxer said after participating in a half-mile test drive during Demo '97, notes UC Berkeley's Intellimotion. "Without it, we’re not going to accommodate 40 to 60 million people. We can’t keep building roads."

Here's a peek at the event: