Self-driving wasn’t confined to the laboratory for long. CPUs and image-processing techniques improved, so that by the late 1970s engineers at the University of Tsukuba’s Mechanical Engineering Lab were able to test the world’s first self-driving passenger vehicle, on Japanese roads. Traveling at speeds up to 20 miles per hour, these first AVs used two video cameras to visually detect street markings. In the 1980s the action moved to Europe, where Ernst Dickmanns, a professor at West Germany’s Armed Forces University, retrofitted a Mercedes-Benz van with self-driving gadgets of his own design, launching a decade-long collaboration with auto giant Daimler.
Finally, it was the Americans’ turn, as Carnegie Mellon University took the lead in the 1990s. As the competition to build self-driving machines spread worldwide, the software improved quickly and computers got ever faster, unlocking new possibilities. By the decade’s end, the first cross-country trips under automated control — in the U.S., Germany, and Japan — were in the record books.