The 100-Year History of Self-Driving Cars

What the long history of the autonomous vehicle reveals about its fast-approaching future

Anthony Townsend
Published in
13 min readAug 3, 2020


Vintage illustration of a family of four playing a board game, while their futuristic electric car automatically drives itself, 1957. Image: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

The first self-driving vehicles were ships. After centuries of wrestling with wind and waves, ancient sailors devised contraptions that harnessed these forces of nature to fill in for man. They were simple but ingenious solutions, like the sheet-to-tiller system, which is still used today.

To rig it, you simply take the jib sheet (the rope that controls the smaller sail up front) and run it around a pulley and back across the deck. Finish by tying the bitter end to the tiller (the stick that steers the boat). Now, when a gust hits and the boat starts to round up into the wind, the jib will pull the rope around the pulley and yank the tiller, steering the vessel back the opposite way.

Tricks like this helped clever mariners relieve the fatigue of long shifts at the helm during the Age of Sail. You can use it to crack open a cold one and enjoy the spray as your yacht plows through the whitecaps like a train on rails. And while tillers were repurposed to steer the first automobiles, this old technique didn’t make the leap from sea to land — though we can imagine some frightful, fruitless attempts to make it do so. By 1891, the introduction of the steering wheel, by Benz, put the matter to rest.

On land, self-steering actually got harder when machines replaced animals. Motorization was a vast improvement over draft animals’ muscle power, but the gain came at the expense of brain power. It had long been common for riders on horseback, and even cart drivers, to fall asleep at the reins. Their dutiful animals would simply keep following the road or stop dead in their tracks.

Cars and trucks, however, needed drivers to guide them second by second. Their soaring popularity, combined with the growing risks posed by their weight and speed, birthed a variety of experimental self-steering schemes. One 1925 demonstration of a remotely controlled vehicle in New York City offered a glimpse of driverless autos to come, simultaneously tantalizing and terrifying the public. Cruising down Broadway before thousands of onlookers, the optimistically named American Wonder drove “as if a phantom hand were at the wheel,” reported…