How a big blue van from 1986 paved the way for self-driving cars

In 1986, a blue Chevy van often cruised around the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania near Carnegie Mellon University. To the casual observer, nothing about it appeared out of the ordinary. Most people would pass by it without noticing the camcorder peeking out from its roof, or the fact that there were no hands on the steering wheel.

But if any passerby had stopped to inspect the van and peer into its interior, they would have realized it was no ordinary car. This was the world’s first self-driving automobile: A pioneering work of computer science and engineering somehow built in a world where fax machines were still the predominant way to send documents, and most phones still had cords. But despite being stuck in an era where technology hadn’t caught up to humanity’s imagination quite yet, the van — and the researchers crammed into it — helped to lay the groundwork for all the Teslas, Waymos, and self-driving Uber prototypes cruising around our streets in 2022.