Christian Charisius / Reuters

The Driverless Future

Autopia or Dystopia?

When Sadayuki Tsugawa, a now-retired Japanese engineer, began working on so-called intelligent vehicles back in the 1970s, only a few researchers around the world were interested in developing the technology. Even the Japanese government, which funded his labors, was initially skeptical of such pie-in-the-sky pursuits, particularly at a time when domestic automakers like Toyota and Nissan were still playing catch-up against U.S. and European competitors.

Tsugawa, however, was drawn to the idea of being on the cutting edge. “It was the frontier of engineering at that time,” he explained to me in June. In 1977, several years after joining the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory under Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Tsugawa and his small team of researchers turned a black Toyota sedan into what some experts now credit as the “world’s first autonomous car.” Equipped with two analog cameras, the vehicle could “see” and process images as it traveled up to 20 miles per hour down a test track.

Tsugawa went on to win awards for his research, including one from the Japanese government in 1999, but in many ways, it’s only now that his decades of work on intelligent vehicles is getting the wider affirmation it deserves. 


Today, rarely a day goes by without a headline about autonomous vehicles and the powerful companies racing to develop them. And it’s not hard to see why. In the United States alone, the country with the most registered vehicles, people travel more than four trillion miles each year, the vast majority by car. The average American family spends more money on transportation each year than on anything else except their home.

The competition to develop self-driving cars is all the more fierce as manufacturing behemoths like Ford, Toyota, and Daimler square off against auto industry upstarts like Tesla and tech heavyweights like Alphabet, Uber, and Baidu. New entrants seem to be joining the fray every day. Scores of companies around the world, including many startups, are working liDAR, which uses lasers to measure distance. In the state of California alone, which is a hub for the technology, three dozen firms are currently testing their creations.

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