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Autonomous Vehicle Safety and Test Drivers


Test drivers have been needed ever since the first automobile was manufactured in the late 19th century. General Motors established the first private proving ground, or test track, in the industry in Milford, Michigan, in 1924.

The first autonomous passenger vehicle was created by Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering in 1977. According to a history of autonomous cars at, the vehicle “could recognize street markings while traveling at nearly 20 miles per hour, thanks to two vehicle-mounted cameras.” In 1987, German engineer Ernst Dickmanns created the VaMoRs Mercedes Van, which had an array of cameras and 60 micro-processing modules to detect objects on the road. says that “Dickmann’s key innovation was ‘dynamic vision,’ allowing the imaging system to filter out extraneous ‘noise’ and focus only on relevant objects.” This type of imaging technology is key to the successful operation of autonomous vehicles today.

Safety and test drivers have been needed since the early days of autonomous vehicle (AV) testing. In addition to automobiles, researchers are hard at work developing autonomous driving software for trucks and buses. Experts have determined that it will be much easier to develop AV technology for use on highways, especially interstates. This is true because these roads already feature smart-enabled road infrastructure (SERI), which includes electronics built into speed limit signs, barriers, traffic signals, stoplights, and message boards, as well as sensors embedded in the pavement that gather and send information to AVs. Most local roads do not feature SERI. In 2018, Embark Trucking was the first software company to test self-driving technology on public roads. The test consisted of a five-day, 2,400-mile trip from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida. Safety and test drivers were on hand to make sure that the software functioned properly and sat at the ready to take control of the vehicle, if necessary.

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