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Today’s technologies would be considered magic to people just a few decades past, but the ideas behind them are often far from new. The promise of a driverless future, for example, may seem to many like it arrived in the last decade, but it’s been both “just around the corner” and symbolic of the future for the past century.

The first driverless ground vehicle technically appeared in 1904, a radio-controlled tricycle developed by Leonardo Torres-Quevedo. In the 1920s, remote-controlled “phantom autos” drove through Ohio that could reportedly be operated from up to five miles away. The concept of a self-driving or ‘autonomous’ car then entered the mainstream in 1939, in an exhibit at New York World’s Fair that predicted America’s future in 1960.

After early prototypes debuted in the 1960s and 70s, the capability of autonomous vehicles has slowly improved alongside developments in parallel technologies. Today, the basic hardware is well established – almost all vehicles come with a combination of radar, cameras, LIDAR, GPS, and so on – and rapid advances in computing power have significantly improved the software side by making deep neural networks much more practical.

When the driverless future does become a reality, then it could cause paradigm shifts at multiple levels of society. It’s more than just a source for convenience, it could democratize transportation, reduce emissions, help to improve agricultural yield, and more.

The barrier to getting there is safety. One of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to build a commercial product is that it's no longer about just demonstrating that it works – it’s about guaranteeing that it works safely, and reliably. This isn’t even just in terms of the driving itself; the surrounding infrastructure, and potential problems with hacking and privacy breaches, are equally important factors.

So how long will it be until we get this peace of mind and, when we do, will people still retain some level of control? How do self-driving cars even work, for that matter?

In this episode, we discuss all of this and more with a “rockstar” of autonomous vehicles: Nvidia’s Justyna Zander. We explore why the driverless future has been slower to arrive than expected, the future of autonomous transport and its benefits, and the differences between a machine-based driver and a human.

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