12 Dec 22

25 years of autonomous vehicles: The challenge towards Level 5

The dream of self-driving vehicles started occupying the human mind shortly after humans discovered how to fly. One edition of the Scientific American in 1918 visualised a self-driving street car, defining the vision of a motorist's dream controlled by pushing buttons. In 1933, Popular Mechanics asserted that the recent developments in mechanics were a clear sign towards self-driving vehicles. They were right. 

The source of the many groundbreaking developments in autonomous vehicles (AVs) today came in the 1990s. Inspired by the futuristic image of self-driving cars of the sci-fi genre, the 90s witnessed several developments in autonomous driving: 

1995: Carnegie Mellon University completed the first US coast-to-coast autonomous driving of 4,500 km. Over 98% of the journey was driven by the computer RALPH built into a minivan. 
1996: Mercedes S Class managed to drive from Munich to Copenhagen through computed vision.  
1997: One of the pillars of Autopilot technology, Adaptive cruise control (ACC), debuted on the Toyota Celsior. 
1998: The US Congress requested an "automated highway system" demonstration. 
1999: The first driverless vehicle, ParkShuttle, produced by Connexxion, rolled onto the roads. 

The final period of the 1990s saw the establishment of some critical tech companies in autonomous driving, such as Google in 1998 and Mobileye in 1999. 

A new pioneer 

One of the most important developments in autonomous driving happened when Tesla was founded in 2003. Five years later, Tesla Roadster hit the roads. The years following the release of the Roadster witnessed significant R&D in autonomous technologies in Tesla. The company's vision was to become the leader in the electric vehicles segment and spearhead self-driving technology. 

2014: Tesla Model S gained the ability to automate some steering, braking and accelerating actions through new hardware. 
2015: Tesla Version 7.0 software was released for Mode S, enabling the Autopilot function. 
2016: Tesla released Enhanced Autopilot and a Full Self-Driving Capability feature. 

Tesla was aiming to achieve the most challenging task in autonomous vehicle technology: Reaching Level 5. The levels in the development order are defined below: 

  • Level 0: The driver performs all the tasks and manoeuvres.
  • Level 1: The vehicle can control some systems, but the driver must always be alert.
  • Level 2: The vehicle can analyse the environment to a degree and take some decisions.
  • Level 3: The vehicle can self-drive under certain conditions and places. 
  • Level 4: The vehicle can drive without intervention thanks to advanced technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI). 
  • Level 5: The smart vehicle can communicate with its environment and other vehicles through the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G. 

Peak of development

Tesla's AutoPilot kicked off a new period in autonomous driving, but a number of accidents related to the feature highlighted the system's vulnerabilities. According to research in 2019, US auto and tech industry experts believed it would take 12 years to start selling fully automated vehicles. Robotaxis, on the other hand, is predicted to hit the roads for public use in 2025. 

As in the 90s, expectation and ambition peaked in mid-2010 as the emergence of new start-ups and developments followed one another. One booster was the increasing focus on autonomous driving in commercial areas. The addition of General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW in the autonomous driving market in 2013 added to the increasing competition. 


  • BMW, Audi and Daimler acquired Nokia's digital mapping company HERE for $3bn.
  • Volvo launched the "Drive Me" project in Sweden, testing autonomous vehicles in special zones around Gothenburg,
  • Apple began working on "Project Titan", part of the Apple Car project to produce a fully autonomous EV. 


  • General Motors (GM) invested $500 m in Lyft, a MaaS start-up launched in 2012. GM also acquired Cruise Automotive for $1 bn.
  • Apple invested $1 bn in Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing.
  • Toyota and Uber announced a partnership to develop AVs.
  • Tesla Autopilot completes 480 million kilometres of journey.
  • Volvo sets the goal of eliminating fatal accidents by 2020.


  • Intel acquires 15% of HERE to support mapping tech for AVs. 
  • Chipmaker NVIDIA announced a partnerships with Daimler, Audi and Bosch to develop autonomous driving tech.
  • Peugeot-PSA and Lyft announced a partnership with self-driving software developer NuTonomy.
  • Waymo started AV testing without a safety driver.
  • Tesla announced the semi-truck, aiming to reach Level 4 driving.
  • Beijing issued a permit for AV testing on public roads. 


  • "China's Google" Baidu completed 140,000 km of the autonomous driving test in Beijing. 
  • Volvo announced the Vera self-driving platform to become operational in Gothenburg port next year.
  • Lyft completed 5,000 self-driving rides in Las Vegas. 
  • Baidu's Apollo self-driving bus was revealed at Shanghai Expo.
  • Rotterdam port started testing autonomous navigation tech. 
  • Nvidia unveiled "Xavier," an AI-based new self-driving chip, at CES 2018.


  • Mining giant RioTinto and Caterpillar announced a partnership to develop zero-emission autonomous haul trucks.
  • Volvo and Uber revealed the Volvo XC90 SUV, the first production car equipped with Uber's self-driving system.
  • Apple acquired the self-driving start-up Drive.ai.
  • Toyota partnered with Baidu's Apollo platform, 
  • Baidu completed over 1.5 million kilometres of autonomous driving. 


  • Waymo launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Arizona without a safety driver.
  • GM's self-driving unit Cruise launched its first service without a safety driver. 
  • Helsinki began an autonomous vehicle test on public roads.
  • Volvo teamed up with Waymo intending to develop Level 4 self-driving. 

What's next for autonomous vehicles? 

Considering that the AV market will be worth around $400 bn in 2025, we could estimate replacing all vehicles on the road with Level 5 by 2050. The sales figures support this expectation: In 2019, around 1.4 million vehicles with at least Level 3 autonomy were sold worldwide, according to Statista. By 2030, sales of AVs are expected to reach 58 million units. 

Collaborations between auto giants and tech companies has continued to grow in the last two years, reflecting the determination towards improvement in the AV industry and the intense rivalry. Volkswagen and Bosch are developing Level 2 self-driving software, while Volvo and Luminar are trying to deliver LIDAR to AVs. 

Advancements in the AV industry have reached a level of endless innovation. In May 2022, Mercedes-Benz released the Drive Pilot feature for S-Class and EQS at Level 3 and authorised its use on 13,000 km of motorways in Germany. Nevertheless, there are safety issues encircling the AV market. A public poll in 2020 in the US showed only 20% of people believe AVs will ever be safe. For 48%, taking a taxi ride in a Level 5 vehicle is currently unthinkable. While the US and Europe are busy regulating Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles, people will need to increase their trust in machines. 

The first in-article image shows Tesla Roadster; the second, NVIDIA's AI vision; the third Waymo's rider-first, autonomous mobility platform designed in partnership with Zeekr; and the fourth, Volvo and Luminar developed Iris LIDAR tech, courtesy of Tesla, Waymo and Volvo, respectively.

Authored by: Mufit Yilmaz Gokmen