1995: Best robot car so far: Fast Mercedes robot of Ernst Dickmanns @ UniBW Munich drives 1800 km on public autobahns
Prof. Schmidhuber's highlights of robot car history
Cogbotlab logo
Prehistory before 1980: simple self-driving vehicles
Stanford cart '61 & Shakey, Moravec '79
Stanford Shakey by Moravec
1977: a vehicle of Japan's Mechanical Engineering Lab follows roads for up to 50 m at up to 30 km/h
1980s: the legendary Ernst Dickmanns (right) and his group at Univ. Bundeswehr Munich (UniBW) build the world's first real robot cars, using saccadic vision, probabilistic approaches such as Kalman filters, and parallel computers
Ernst Dickmanns, robot car pioneer
Right: exterior and interior of some of the UniBW cars (up to 96 km/h on empty streets)
1987-1995: almost $1 billion for the pan-European Prometheus project, the largest robot car project ever (with UniBW and many others)
Autonomous car of Ernst Dickmanns and UniBW Autonomous car of Ernst Dickmanns and UniBW Munich
Some US sources compared Dickmanns to the Wright brothers
Autonomous car of Ernst Dickmanns and UniBW Munich Autonomous car of Ernst Dickmanns and UniBW
1994: Autonomous vision-based VaMP robot of Dickmanns @ UniBW drives in Paris traffic, tracking up to 12 other cars simultaneously
Mercedes 500 SEL
The "VAmP" Mercedes 500 SEL drives more than 1000 km on the Paris multi-lane ring, up to 130 km/h, automatically passing slower cars in the left lane
1990s: Kanade, Thorpe (CMU); neural nets learn to steer (Pomerleau)
1995: "no hands across America" (CMU). Throttle and brakes need human control though
no hands across America
1995: UniBW Munich's fast Mercedes robot does 1000 autonomous miles on the highway - in traffic - no GPS!
Dickmanns' famous S-class car autonomously drives 1678 km on public Autobahns from Munich to Denmark and back, up to 158 km without human intervention, at up to 180 km/h, automatically passing other cars
Best robot car so far: Fast Mercedes robot of UniBW and Ernst Dickmanns drives 1800 km on public autobahns
Most awesome robot car so far
2005: DARPA "grand challenge" (limited to US teams): no traffic, dirt roads, driven by GPS: course predefined by 2935 GPS points (up to 4 GPS points per street curve). Obstacle types known in advance
1st place 2nd place 3rd place 4th place 5th place
Top: Five cars (max speed 40 km/h) complete a 211 km desert course: 1. Volkswagen of Stanford (6h 54min), 2. Hummer of CMU (2.5% slower), 3. CMU's 2nd Hummer (5% slower) ...
... 4. Gray team (8% slower), 5. Terramax truck (44% slower)
2006: European Land Robot Trials (ELROB): demos of autonomous offroad vehicles
2007: New robot car demos and challenges by ELROB and DARPA
2007 saw see the Civilian "European Land Robot Trials" and the DARPA "Urban Grand Challenge" won by the GM car "Boss" of CMU.
European Land Robot Trial ELROB 2007 DARPA 2007 Urban Grand Challenge GM car Boss of CMU, winner of the DARPA 
2007 Urban Grand Challenge
Since 2000 many drivers have become used to guidance from onboard devices that combine detailed street maps and the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS). Some robot cars use essentially the same GPS-based techniques, plus some sort of pattern recognition for tracking other cars, recognizing trees, boulders and shadows, and identifying traffic signs, etc.

Check out this Google talk video of a keynote speech by Ernst Dickmanns (THE pioneer of robot cars) at the 4th Conference on Artificial General Intelligence, Google Headquarters, Mountain View, California, 3-7 Aug 2011. Or see the embedded video at the bottom of this page.

What will the future bring? In 2005 computers were roughly 1000 times faster per dollar than those of Dickmanns' era, and the next decade will bring another factor of 1000 or so. Such hardware advances are the main reason for progress in robot control - software advances seem less crucial as the basic algorithms for pattern recognition and probabilistic reasoning have not changed fundamentally in the past decade, except for epsilon improvements here and there. Somewhat surprisingly, however, many representatives of leading car companies such as BMW and DaimlerChrysler (the company with the world's largest private research budget: $6.7 billion as of 2005) are not all too enthusiastic about self-driving vehicles. Why not? Because they feel that completely autonomous cars do not necessarily fit the self-image of their customer base. Hence their present research focuses on more modest topics such as driver assistance. Even absent a large market for commercial self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles may still find significant military applications - compare the work of the US Army Research Lab (since the mid 1990s), General Dynamics Robotic Systems, and NIST (system architecture by J. Albus & team).

Fibonacci web design by J. Schmidhuber, 2005 (last update 2011). Below: Schmidhuber praising the achievements of Dickmanns during his AGI-09 keynote, 2009.

Schmidhuber praising the achievements of Dickmanns
  during his AGI-09 keynote, 2009
AGI 2011 keynote by robot car pioneer Dickmanns himself: