20 cars that drive themselves

Here are the self-driving prototypes that have helped the auto industry get to this point.

On the road again

Given that MIT is now working on a safer prototype for autonomous vehicles, using communications technology to expand the cars’ field of vision, these vehicles may make the leap from science fiction to reality sooner than previously thought.

Driverless cars have already been legalized in California and Nevada, and Google says we’ll see them on the road in five years.

Here are the prototypes that have helped the industry get to this point.

BMW's Autonomous car

In an attempt to provide a safer, more realistic model, BMW showcased its self-driving prototype in 2011, which can identify the car’s environment for a 55-yard radius.

In typical BMW fashion, it put a host from the BBC’s Top Gear in the driver seat as it reached 140 kilometers per hour on a racetrack.

Mercedes Benz automated driving

In 2010, Mercedes Benz debuted its own work with autonomous vehicles. Not surprisingly, the car hasn’t altered its mid-sized sedan’s iconic exterior design, but showed some impressive test runs with two automated cars driving concurrently.

Six months after introducing the technology, the company claimed it will be commercially available in its S-Class in 2013.

Cadillac Super Cruise

As is tradition, Cadillac attempted to match BMW and Mercedes with its own autonomous luxury vehicle, the Super Cruise. Introduced this year, it’s only a semi-autonomous system, and Cadillac warns that it’s only suitable for certain conditions.

But at least Cadillac was able to keep up in its luxury car arms race. Video available here.

Audi TTS Pikes Peak

Named for the Colorado mountain it climbed on a test run in 2010, the Audi TTS Pikes Peak is a modified version of the popular Audi TTS sports car and is equipped with two computers to run safety-focused algorithms and another for dynamics.

The car climbed Pikes Peak in 27 minutes, topping out at 45 mph.

According to Top Speed, a professional driver could complete the same course in roughly 17 minutes.

Carnegie Mellon’s “Boss”

In 2007, the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held its Urban Challenge for academic and corporate research teams to engage in a driverless car competition.

The winner, Carnegie Mellon’s robotized 2007 Chevy Tahoe called Boss, finished a complex urban obstacle course 20 minutes ahead of the second-place competitor.

Stanford University’s “Junior”

Stanford came in second place at the DARPA Urban Challenge with Junior, an autonomous Volkswagen Passat.

Junior averaged 13.7 miles per hour through the 60-mile course, just short of the 14 miles per hour Carnegie Mellon’s first-place Boss SUV averaged.

Virginia Tech’s “Odin”

The third-place winner at the DARPA Urban Challenge was Odin, a 2005 Ford Hybrid Escape from researchers, faculty, and students at Virginia Tech.

One of only three that finished the course in less than five hours, Odin came in just seven minutes after the second-place car from Stanford, and just 26 minutes after the first-place winner.

MIT’s “Talos”

MIT’s modified Land Rover LR3 was the only other car to finish with an official recorded time. It completed the course in approximately six hours.

Talos ran Linux and featured a cluster with 40 cores.

The VisLab electric driverless van

In the longest recorded trip by an unmanned vehicle in history, Italian company VisLab’s electric van traveled 8,077 miles from Italy to China in a three-month span in 2010.

The ARGO Project

VisLab didn’t break the record on its first attempt. The company, linked to Italy’s University of Parma, began independently researching autonomous vehicles since 1989 to contribute to other projects.

But, by 1998, the company would put its own autonomous vehicle on the road for a 2,000-kilometer trip through Italy.


The ARGO Project would give way to BRAiVE, short for BRAin-drIVE, which VisLab would introduce at the 2009 IEEE IV conference in China.

BRAiVE was designed as a test vehicle to further develop technologies the automotive industry may not be working on.

EUREKA Prometheus Project

VisLab also had ties to the largest driverless vehicles research initiative in history, which was headed by Daimler-Benz AG in 1987. Making use of the modern equivalent of $1 billion in funding from the European Commission, the project culminated in 1994 with a 600-mile trip on a French highway in heavy traffic conditions.

However, the research project was shut down just a year later.

Volkswagen Golf GTi ‘53 plus 1’

Volkswagen’s driverless car, named “53 plus 1” after the number 53 on fictional driverless Volkswagen Herbie, reached 150 miles per hour in tests when it was released in 2006.

When Volkswagen invited the public to unveil the car, attendees were welcome to create their own courses with road cones to try to test the real-life Herbie’s capabilities.

Volkswagen’s ‘Temporary Auto Pilot’

Five years later, Volkswagen presented a more practical autonomous driving solution called “ Temporary Auto Pilot,” a feature through which the driver can turn on a driverless car system up to 80 miles per hour.

Stanford’s “Shelley”

Two years after an Audi TTS climbed Pikes Peak, researchers from Stanford University and Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Lab equipped the same car with similar driving speeds and capabilities as professional drivers.

In tests at a California raceway, “Shelley” reached 120 miles per hour en route to completing a three-mile course in less than two and a half minutes.

Spirit of Berlin

The first prototype created by AutoNOMOS Labs, which is part of the Artificial Intelligence Group at the Frei Universitat Berlin, the Spirit of Berlin was a semifinalist at the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007.

Autonomous Taxi Cab

Through a combination of mobile app, GPS, and autonomous driving technology, AutoNOMOS Labs showcased its 100 percent robotic taxi system in 2010.

The mobile app sends the car its location based on GPS tracking, and uses a mapping app to follow the car on its way to pick the user up.

An address is then entered into a tablet installed in the backseat of the cab to instruct the car where to go once the user has been picked up.

Volvo’s finished SARTRE road train product

Last month, Volvo announced that the SARTRE (Safe Road TRAins for the Environment) research project in Europe had come to a close, and that the company was ready to look into putting its finished product on the road.

Given that Volvo once declared that it could eliminate all fatal accidents for its drivers by 2020, the SARTRE project is an important step.

General Motors’ EN-V

With a completely different approach, GM has developed the most science-fiction-designed autonomous car. Though it’s been years in the making, the newest version was showcased at this year’s Beijing Motor Show.

Aimed at city driving, the EN-V only has two wheels and is limited to 25 miles on its electric motor, but is said to be capable of handling difficult weather conditions.

Google’s self-driving car

Google’s self-driving car, which has become the barometer against which all others have been compared, can boast some pretty impressive accomplishments.

Among them are reaching 300,000 miles without causing an accident, and, as shown in this video, allowing a legally blind man to travel in the driver’s seat.