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ALVINN Was a Self-Driving Car in the 80s

In 1989, a self-driving car at Carnegie Mellon University was way ahead of its time.


We like to think of self-driving cars as a new phenomena, beholden to our high-tech 21st century society. However, the concept has been around as far back as the 80s. While the only high tech car most of us remember from then is Knight Rider’s KITT, at Carnegie Mellon University, there was another one called ALVINN.

Research into autonomous cars began at the university in 1984, and two years later, they produced their first vehicle, Navlab 1. ALVINN, which is an abbreviation for Autonomous Land Vehicle In a Neural Network, was its successor, and was being tested well into the 90s. The vehicle saw a return to the spotlight recently, during a discussion on twitter between Oliver Cameron, an engineer working on an open source self-driving car project at Udacity, and Dean Pomerleau, the CMU professor who was head of the ALVINN project.

During the discussion, it was mentioned how ALVINN ran on a CPU capable of performing 100 million calculations per second. The computer was the size of a refrigerator and needed a 5,000W power supply to work. By comparsion, that computing power is about one tenth of what’s available in your off the shelf smart-watch.

With eight years of research backed by US MIlitary funding, it could easily be said that ALVINN laid the groundwork for the modern self-driving car. “The approach ALVINN took was using a neural network to drive the car, which was absolutely novel for the time and is quickly becoming an increasingly popular approach with self-driving car efforts,” said Pomerleau. While Google’s self-driving cars rely on maps, a neural network enables the car to analyze its environment on the spot and make impromptu decisions. This way, you could drop the car anywhere and it would be able to adapt and perform well.

Once you start digging, you see traces of ALVINN everywhere. For example, Chris Urmson, who once headed Google’s self-driving car efforts, was a colleague of Pomerleau’s at CMU. Similarly, Uber has snatched several engineers from CMU as well, to work on their self-driving technology.

The video below is a news report on Pomerleau’s project, and speaks with optimism about many of the technologies we’ve come to see as reality today.

source: The Verge

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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