From driving to being driven. The “Chauffeur” project is about to begin.

At the end of 2007, the DARPA Urban Challenge came to an end, a competition launched by the US Defense Agency, which had already initiated the development of the Internet. Driverless vehicles had to cope with a course that was modeled on typical urban traffic situations, including intersections, parking lots and moving obstacles controlled by stunt men.

The $ 1 million prize pool won then the renowned Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University just ahead of the team from the AI ​​Institute at Stanford University).

The euphoria of everyone involved about what had been achieved quickly gave way to disillusionment, reports Lawrence Burns, then Head of Development at General Motors (GM) and main sponsor of the winning team. The automotive industry showed no interest in further developing and commercializing the technology: the car managers found the hardware to be too expensive, the expected development times too long, and possible application scenarios too disruptive for their own business.

In addition, the auto industry stumbled on the eve of the financial crisis. The “entire industry had lived beyond its means and was moving close to the abyss,” wrote former car manager Bill Vlasic about this time. Ford barely survived on its own, GM and Chrysler could only survive thanks to government support. Burns himself now considers this rejection of self-driving technology to be the largest misjudgment of the auto industry in its recent history.

(Image: jamesteohart /

Autonomous driving, the effects on the transport of people with robotic taxis, people movers, autonomous buses and the necessary techniques and regulations deal with us in a ten-part series, the individual articles of which will be published on weekdays until May 14th.

  • Part 3: Pandemic Effect: Robotaxis are picking up speed
    Technically, your operation seems almost solved, but what about the profitability of a driverless fleet? An overview.
  • Part 4: USA – Eldorado for test operations with robotic taxis
    Test operations are running in some states, and California has even regulated commercial operations. The industry is hoping for a breakthrough from Joe Biden.
  • Part 5: Robo-Taxis – Who Will Win the Race in the USA?
    Two dozen companies are testing autonomous fleets, and the race will likely be decided in California. We give an overview of the applicant field.
  • Part 6: Like California, only bigger: Robotaxis in China
    The potentially largest market for autonomous fleets is impressive in terms of technology, test operations and capital resources of the companies involved.
  • Part 7: China: Autonomous driving through a planned economy
    Startups that are keen to experiment, state infrastructure funding and a high level of acceptance among the population make autonomous fleets a recipe for success in China.
  • Part 8: Automatic Shuttles – The European Way?
    There are no robotaxi test runs in Europe, but more and more autonomous shuttles that are making tentative driving tests as part of public transport …
  • Part 9: Green wave for robotic taxis in Germany too?[br]These days the Bundestag is debating a legislative proposal from the Ministry of Transport that could pave the way for robotic taxis in our country as well.
  • Part 10: Driverless transport as part of the traffic transition
    Robo-taxis, people movers and autonomous shuttles – can autonomous fleets make a contribution to the traffic transition?

A year later, a company was found that was ready to invest in the technology of the future: Google. The two Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page assessed the market volume of self-driving road vehicles as gigantic (“bigger than Google”) from the start. They also knew it was a software problem, not a hardware problem. Because the autonomously driving vehicle is first and foremost a moving networked computer, only in a second instance a vehicle defined by the art of engineering.


Google’s self-driving car

From the very beginning, Google understood autonomous driving as a combination of various digital technologies: processing large amounts of sensor data in real time, access to high-resolution maps and algorithmic decisions made by learning systems – core competencies of IT companies, but not of car manufacturers. In the words of Apple CEO Steve Cook: “The mother of all artificial intelligence projects“.

Rumors keep making the rounds that Apple wants to bring automated e-vehicles onto the market itself. Last was of a possible cooperation with the car manufacturer Hyundai from Korea and the iPhone supplier Foxconn from China.

In 2008, Google was far from the global corporation it is today. However, they had already had their first experiences with Google Maps, which would prove to be the key to the technology. When the Google Car project started, the best people from both DARPA winning teams were there. They appointed Cris Urmson, a robotics specialist from Carnegie-Mellon University, to be in charge. The internal code name of the Google Car project: “Chauffeur”.

2008 is a turning point in the history of the automobile in several ways. Not only does Google’s car project start on this date, but Tesla also launched its first electric sports car on the market at the same time. Meanwhile, Uber raised its first million in venture capital in San Francisco. Uber competitor Lyft, which was still called Zimride at the time, also took its first steps in app-based ride sharing – both triggered by the market launch of the iPhone the year before. Together with the Google Car Project, these were three key technological moments that the auto industry missed.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that a gray Toyota Prius with a strange rotating cylinder on the roof had been spotted in Mountain View, California. Only now did the general public find out what was an open secret in Silicon Valley: Google is trying its hand at autonomous driving. The team has already covered 300,000 miles accident-free on public roads, which seemed to pave the way for commercial use. But it should take a while.

Toyota Prius equipped with lidar as part of the Google Car project

(Bild: Flckr: user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson), “Trimmed and retouched with PS9 by Mariordo”, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In autumn 2014, Google then presented the prototype of a fully autonomous vehicle to the public. The disarming simplicity and the design of the prototype impressed the professional world. It was seen as a reinterpretation of the classic car as a modest, small, slow, electric vehicle that could also be a potential new partner in a multimodal networking culture. The small, egg-shaped, electrically operated two-seater without a steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal was the first fully automatic vehicle to be produced in small series that was intended for use in normal road traffic.

Google’s “driverless car” in traffic

(Image: Grendelkhan, CC BY-SA 4.0)

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