Object Lesson from Dickmanns, Driverless Car Inventor

It’s likely most people haven’t heard of Ernst Dickmanns and the advanced work he did on driverless vehicles decades before the current crop of manufacturers began trying to perfect them. In a well researched article for Politico.eu by Janosch Delcker, you can find the moving story about the German engineer credited with inventing one of the first working versions of an autonomous vehicle.

Decades before Google, Tesla and Uber got into the self-driving car business, a team of German engineers led by a scientist named Ernst Dickmanns had developed a car that could navigate French commuter traffic on its own, according to a story by Janosch Delcker for POLITICO.

The story of Dickmanns’s invention its genesis is all but forgotten, a neat illustration of how technology sometimes progresses: not in small steady steps, but in booms and busts, in unlikely advances and inevitable retreats—“one step forward and three steps back,” as one AI researcher put it. The story of Dickmanns, the German scientist who tested self-driving cars on European streets in the 1980s and 1990s, is also a warning about the expectations we place on AI and the limits of some of the data-driven approaches being used today.

“I’ve stopped giving general advice to other researchers,” said Dickmanns, now 82 years old. “Only this much: One should never completely lose sight of approaches that were once very successful.”

Before becoming the man “who actually invented self-driving cars,” as Berkeley computer scientist Jitendra Malik put it, Dickmanns spent the first decade of his professional life analyzing the trajectories space ships take when they reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

In 1986, Dickmanns’s van became the first vehicle to drive autonomously — on the skidpan at his university. The next year, he sent it down an empty section of a yet-to-be-opened Bavarian autobahn at speeds approaching 90 kilometers per hour. Soon afterward,  the German carmaker Daimler approached him. Together, they secured funding from a massive pan-European project, and in the early 1990s, the company came up with an idea that first seemed “absurd” to Dickmanns.

At first the newspapers and media were very excited at the prospects of these self driving cars, and gave plenty of positive coverage. Then when the funding from Daimler ran out, Dickmanns’s team experienced an AI winter. That period after the excitement has died done over the idea and the actual product has not been perfected to the point of production.

Dickmanns’ work on autonomous driving began during the first winter and ended after a second one hit the field.

The article in Politico is truly fascinating and well worth the read. It is a story of persevering for the sake of the project, even if you are not there for the final result or success.

“I’m glad I could be one of the pioneers. But if I could start anew today, with the technology that’s available, this would be a whole different story” — Ernst Dickmanns

Ernst Dickmanns, the German scientist who tested self-driving cars on European streets in the 1980s and 1990 | Janosch Delcker for POLITICO

read more at politico.eu