FOR LONGTIME RESIDENTS of Pittsburgh, seeing self-driving cars built by Uber, Argo AI, and others roam their streets is nothing new. The city’s history with robot cars goes back to the late 1980s, when students at Carnegie Mellon University caught the occasional glimpse of a strange vehicle lumbering across campus. The bright-blue Chevy panel van, chugging along at slower than a walking pace, may not have looked like much. But NavLab 1 was slowly—very slowly—pioneering the age of autonomous driving.
Why did the researchers at CMU’s Robotics Institute use the van instead of, say, a Prius? First, this was a decade before Toyota started making the hybrid. Second, the NavLab (that’s Navigational Laboratory) was one of the first autonomous vehicles to carry its computers with it. They needed space, and lots of it.