The Man Who Gave Cars Eyes: Ernst Dickmanns (2023)

While the world is only just getting used to the idea of Google’s driverless cars being on the roads around us, not many know that autonomous cars were driving around all the way back in 1986. This was thanks to one pioneering German man with a vision for giving the gift of sight to computers — Ernst Dickmanns.

Images via Wikimedia Commons

Although best known for his work with autonomous vehicles, Ernst Dickmanns didn’t move into this field until much later into his career. Dickmanns was born in Nazi Germany near Cologne in 1936, although the war was over by the time he graduated from Polz Gymnasium in 1956. At that point in his life he wanted to work in aerospace engineering, at a time when prospective engineers were required to do practical work in the industry.

Manoeuvres In Orbit

After undertaking practical work in both metallurgy and aircraft engineering, he earned his diploma of engineering in 1961. From there he went to the Deutsche Forschungs- und Versuchsanstalt für Luft- und Raumfahrt, the German Test and Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight — the organisation that is now the German Aerospace Center. As he described it in a 2010 interview, the centre was something like a German version of NASA.

Dickmanns’ passion was always for aerospace research, as evidenced by his early work and studies. While associated with the German Aerospace Center, he was also working towards a PhD at the Technical University in Aachen in the field of trajectory optimisation. Towards this end he designed manoeuvres for orbiter re-entry, thinking it could have potential applications on the space shuttle program. As he was disappointed to discover, however, the work was doomed to be solely theoretical as in practice the shuttle was far too fragile to even attempt manoeuvres on re-entry.

After earning his PhD, Dickmanns was invited for a Post-Doc Research Associateship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center by a friend he had met at Aachen. This continued on from his doctorate research, working on the shuttle orbiter’s re-entry.

(Video) Ernst Dickmanns’ VaMoRs Mercedes Van, 1986-2003

After returning to Germany, Dickmanns began working in satellite control, working in part of the team that orchestrated the launch and positioning of Europe’s first communications satellite array in 1974. Soon after, he was made acting head of the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, overseeing almost 700 people.

It was during this time that Dickmanns first started looking into the idea of developing ‘vision’ for computers and vehicles, though at its highest level it began with satellite remote sensing systems. In 1977 he started working on the project in earnest, working towards developing vision systems for mobile units — although at the time he had aircraft, spacecraft and other above-ground vehicles in mind. Using the technology for regular road vehicles did not even cross his mind at the time.

Helping Cars To ‘See’

The Man Who Gave Cars Eyes: Ernst Dickmanns (1)

The jump to cars came after they were approached by Daimler-Benz who wanted to collaborate on a project in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the company’s first car (the Benz Motorwagen in 1886). Moving into their second century of car manufacturing, Daimler-Benz proposed a large-scale research project to develop new technologies — one of which was to be autonomous driving.

But first came Dickmanns’ team’s proof of concept — the VaMoRs. VaMoRs was a 5-tonne Mercedes van equipped with cameras and other sensors, modified so that all necessary controls — steering wheel, braked and throttle. The software largely looked at the white lines on the road, and major colour differences in images.

(Video) Behind Google’s Self-Driving Car Project

VaMoRs made its first autonomous drive in 1986, for safety reasons taking place on streets without traffic. Due to the incredibly slow (at least by today’s standards) processing speed of the computers the team were using, Dickmanns had to come up with a way to navigate in real time using a computer that processed images in a matter of seconds, rather than nanoseconds or even milliseconds. He and his team called this the ‘4D approach’.

The Man Who Gave Cars Eyes: Ernst Dickmanns (2)

This system estimated spatial positioning and velocity, without the need to store previously captured images. It was also designed to focus only on the most relevant details of visual input, like areas of high contrast or changes in colour or texture. The VaMoRs made its move onto public roads just a year later in 1987, driving autonomously on the Autobahn at speeds of up to 96km/h — the maximum speed the van was capable of. Dickmanns does note that their license for testing the vehicle specified that at least person had to be inside while it was driving — with their reasoning being that their own safety would make them be more cautious with the car’s testing.


In the same year, the Prometheus project — PROgraMme for a European Traffic of Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety — was initiated under the European Eureka research funding system, receiving €749 million in funding to become the largest R&D project ever seen in the field of driverless cars.

(Video) How self-driving cars will learn to make life-or-death decisions

The initial plan was to use buried cables along the Autobahn to guide autonomous cars down the highway, but Dickmanns’ previous successes were enough to prove the efficiency of the much more flexible computer vision system.

Prometheus was a little bit sexier than the original VaMoRs, involving two modified 500 SEL Mercedes named VaMP and VITA-2. Thanks to the large amount of funding, the computers used for this project were also upgraded, using up to sixty transputers (a type of parallel computer) for the processing power needed.

The Prometheus project achieved its first culmination point in 1994, when the two vehicles were driven autonomously through Paris, able to navigate and change lanes through traffic. For this demonstration — during which passengers were on board to experience the new technology — each car used two cameras with different focal lengths for each hemisphere.

The Man Who Gave Cars Eyes: Ernst Dickmanns (3)

A year later in 1995 the cars took a trip from Munich in Germany to Copenhagen in Denmark, reaching speeds of up to 175km/h on the Autobahn and driving an estimated 158km without human intervention. This trip was meant as a way for the team to collect data on what systems needed to be improved in subsequent generations of autonomous technology.

Some of the challenges faced then are ones that engineers of autonomous vehicles still face today. One that Dickmanns singles out as being particularly tricky is that of ‘negative obstacles’ — that is, potholes or other missing materials in the driving surface. It only becomes more difficult if the potholes are, say, filled with water — although flooded roads have proven to be difficult even for human drivers to judge.

(Video) Driverless car

The Future Of Self Driving Cars

In the late 90s and early 2000s Dickmanns worked with both German and US military institutes on developing ‘off-road’ navigation and detection of obstacles and ditches. To this end the team developed “Expectation-based, Multi-focal, Saccadic vision,” otherwise known as EMS-vision.

By this stage his work had set the standard for autonomous driving, however, and his machine visions systems found themselves being used in a multitude of applications — including in aviation, where his work first began, and even in experiments on board the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Current driverless cars use far more sophisticated technology — aside from having computers with much greater processing power, they also make use of GPS to position themselves in the world. In 2010 Dickmanns described how this step forward was actually a step backwards — for example in the DARPA autonomous vehicle challenges (the Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge), he opines that the cars were merely guided through a sequence of steps by GPS, rather than developing true obstacle avoidance and machine vision.

These days Google has its fleet of driverless cars, while Volvo is in the process of developing its own. Nvidia has even created a compact, high-powered computer that is capable of processing the data needed in real time. Tesla Motors’ cars are developing sophisticated self-driving systems, and three decades after its work with Dickmanns, Mercedes is developing an “Autobahn Autopilot” for use on highways.

(Video) Wim Johns - River

While the technology in the VaMoRs and the VaMP are now obsolete, Dickmanns’ most important work was in proving that machines could ‘see’ well enough to navigate roads like a human driver would — no cables or magnetic strips needed.

Source: Ernst Dickmanns, an oral history by Peter Asaro, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana, for Indiana University and the IEEE, 2010.

These Are Your Numbers is a new Lifehacker series where we profile great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.


Who made the first self-driving car? ›

History of Autonomous Cars

In GM's 1939 exhibit, Norman Bel Geddes created the first self-driving car, which was an electric vehicle guided by radio-controlled electromagnetic fields generated with magnetized metal spikes embedded in the roadway. By 1958, General Motors had made this concept a reality.

What was the first self-driving car in the world? ›

The first self-driving car was successfully piloted from Pittsburgh to San Diego in 1995, although it was not a standard production vehicle. The Navlab5, which was the fifth of ten cars that were retrofitted by The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, was an autonomous vehicle that was able to steer itself.

When did the idea of self-driving cars start? ›

While the rise of autonomous cars has gained prominence over the past two decades, it is true that its beginnings date back to the 1990s. In 1925, Francis Houdina, an electrical engineer from New York, was the first to implement the concept of an autonomous vehicle, although the car was remotely controlled.

In what ways are driverless cars safer than human drivers? ›

Autonomous vehicles are orders of magnitude safer in preventing many types of accidents that have to do with human driver error — for instance, simply rear-ending another vehicle because the driver wasn't paying attention. These types of accidents will practically never happen with autonomous cars.

How much is a driverless car? ›

Tesla has raised the price of its Full Self-Driving (FSD) feature set again, this time to $15,000. The increase follows several others, including one just months ago, when the cost rose from $10,000 to $12,000.

What is the summary of autonomous cars? ›

Autonomous cars create and maintain a map of their surroundings based on a variety of sensors situated in different parts of the vehicle. Radar sensors monitor the position of nearby vehicles. Video cameras detect traffic lights, read road signs, track other vehicles, and look for pedestrians.

Which country first introduced driverless car? ›

In the 1980s, a vision-guided Mercedes-Benz robotic van, designed by Ernst Dickmanns and his team at the Bundeswehr University Munich in Munich, Germany, achieved a speed of 59.6 miles per hour (95.9 km/h) on streets without traffic.

What is the most self-driving car? ›

Car and rankingEase of useS-bend test
1. Tesla Model Y55
2. Audi RS Q854
3. BMW iX353
4. Nissan Qashqai44
6 more rows

What was the first self-driving car in 2005? ›

Stanley is an autonomous car created by Stanford University's Stanford Racing Team in cooperation with the Volkswagen Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL). It won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, earning the Stanford Racing Team a $2 million prize.

Do people feel safe in self-driving cars? ›

Just 27% of people globally say they would feel safe, and in no country or region did more than 45% of people say they would feel safe.

What is the biggest problem with self-driving cars? ›

One of the biggest problems with self-driving cars is that they may not be entirely safe. A driverless vehicle needs to process its surroundings to make judgment calls using perception and decision-making technology.

Are self-driving cars safe for humans? ›

Many experts say that self-driving cars can be trained to be safer than human drivers. With the sensors and cameras monitoring and guiding, these cars can not only sense their environment but also can anticipate what's coming up ahead, which humans are not capable of.

How many self-driving cars have crashed? ›

Automated Vehicle Accident Stats

In 2022, Automakers reported approximately 400 crashes of vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems to the NHTSA. 273 of these accidents involved Teslas (the most common vehicle with self-driving capability), 70% of which used the Autopilot beta at the time.

What 3 things do self-driving cars use to see if anything is nearby? ›

The majority of today's automotive manufacturers most commonly use the following three types of sensors in autonomous vehicles: cameras, radars, and lidars.

What country has the most self-driving cars? ›

Home to world-leading infrastructure for electric vehicles

Electrification is included in this measurement because, for the foreseeable future, autonomous road vehicle technology will work best in electric cars and buses. Norway has long been the world leader in electric vehicle (EV) use by some margin.

How fast is a driverless car? ›

Sensible 4 autonomous vehicles have maximum speed of about 30-40 km/h.

What are the benefits of driverless cars? ›

Advantages of self-driving cars
  • Eradicating human error. ...
  • More independence for the elderly and those with disabilities. ...
  • Fewer accidents or deaths. ...
  • Say goodbye to road rage. ...
  • Opportunities for more efficient driving. ...
  • Forgotten driving skills. ...
  • The danger of hacking. ...
  • Risk of accidents and death.
Apr 13, 2022

Is Tesla a self-driving car? ›

Do I still need to pay attention while using Autopilot? Yes. Autopilot is a hands-on driver assistance system that is intended to be used only with a fully attentive driver. It does not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car nor does it make a car autonomous.

What are the conclusions on autonomous cars? ›


According to some predictions, cars may become fully autonomous by 2035. Even though the technology is developing, we must also be ready to utilize it. Also, the challenges discussed earlier must be overcome in order to ensure a smooth development of the technology.

What is the future of self-driving cars? ›

Autonomous driving's future: Convenient and connected. By 2035, autonomous driving could create $300 billion to $400 billion in revenue. New research reveals what's needed to win in the fast-changing passenger car market.

What is the cheapest self-driving car in 2023? ›

The 2023 Corsair, starting at about $40,000, will be the lowest-priced vehicle in the company to offer the technology. Ford's system uses a suite of cameras and sensors in addition to mapping for hands-free driving on more than 130,000 miles of dedicated highways in North America.

What is level 3 driving? ›

Level 3 capabilities, as defined by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), would enable the vehicle to handle "all aspects of the driving" when engaged but still need the driver attentive enough to promptly take control if necessary.

What level of self-driving is Tesla? ›

In a statement addressing the US recall, Tesla declared its technology is a 'Level Two' semi-autonomous driving system – not the more advanced 'Level Three' system which is already being developed and rolled out by rival car-makers.

What was the first 4 wheel drive car? ›

The first people to make the inspired decision to fit an internal combustion engine with four-wheel drive were a pair of the Dutch brothers, the Spijkers. In 1902, they invented the first full-time mechanical four-wheel drive vehicle, a stunning race car called the 'Spyker 60HP'.

What is the negative side of self-driving cars? ›

The computers needed to run self-driving cars could pose a serious threat to the environment. They could ultimately produce more greenhouse gas emissions per year than Argentina currently does, new research suggests. Fossil fuel-guzzling cars spew out billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What is a bad fact about self-driving cars? ›

Hacked vehicles

Self-driving cars are controlled entirely by computers. Unfortunately, computer hardware and software can be vulnerable to exploits from malicious hackers. These cyber attackers could be able to break into the vehicle's systems and take control of it.

Why self-driving cars are difficult? ›

The challenge is building a system that consists of various parts working together similar to how humans perceive the world. It is implemented in both software and hardware to mimic how humans perceive a situation when driving. The earliest systems made use of sensors like LiDAR (used in computer vision).

Will self-driving cars take away jobs? ›

In the RethinkX report, “Rethinking Transportation", researchers found that the US auto industry employs 1.25 million directly, and 7.25 million indirectly. Meaning that millions could lose their jobs to autonomous technology.

Are there any moral issues with self-driving cars? ›

There are also ethical concerns about who should be held responsible in the event of an accident involving an autonomous vehicle. Some believe that the manufacturers of these vehicles should be held accountable, while others believe that the drivers should still be held responsible.

Are self-driving cars worse for the environment? ›

They found that widespread global adoption of self-driving cars would generate an additional 0.14 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year—as much as the nation of Argentina. The researchers highlighted a serious problem, one that has received scant attention in discussions about our supposedly autonomous future.

How many self-driving cars are there in the US? ›

There is not a vehicle currently available to US consumers that is self-driving. Period. Every vehicle sold to US consumers still requires the driver to be actively engaged in the driving task, even when advanced driver assistance systems are activated.

Are self-driving cars illegal? ›

In late 2016, California passed a law allowing a self-driving vehicle with no operator, no brakes, and no steering wheel to operate on public roads under certain very specific conditions.

Why self-driving cars are better than humans? ›

Benefits of self-driving cars

Better road safety: Human error accounts for 95% of all road accidents. A proper self-driving system can help reduce driver errors behind most accidents. It could also benefit pedestrians and cyclists, who are frequently the victims of driving accidents.

Was Tesla the first self-driving car? ›

The very first fully autonomous vehicle was released in 2014 by Induct Technology. Known as the Navia, this self-driving vehicle was designed as a fully autonomous commercial car produced for guided tours. Today, several companies offer semi-autonomous cars that anyone can purchase—like Tesla.

Did Tesla invent self-driving? ›

According to reports, Tesla's founder – Elon Musk – found inspiration for an autonomous driving system in airplanes. Since the early 1930s, most commercial airplanes have been flown with an autopilot system.

Was Waymo the first self-driving car? ›

He retrofitted the car with light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR), sensors, cameras, and software from his company 510 Systems and named the prototype, the Pribot. The Pribot was the first self-driving car to drive on public roads.

Was Tesla the first electric car? ›

A company that has led the way in terms of zero carbon transportation innovation, Tesla is considered the pioneers of electric cars. But was Tesla the first electric vehicle ? No, quite surprisingly EVs date back centuries.

Can I buy a self-driving car? ›

There is no fully autonomous vehicle for sale today, but some automakers are advancing the field. Over the past few years, a few cars have gone on sale with driver assistance features that take much of the burden off the driver. These systems alleviate driver fatigue by assisting with steering and acceleration.

Can a Tesla drive itself without a driver? ›

Yes. Autopilot is a hands-on driver assistance system that is intended to be used only with a fully attentive driver. It does not turn a Tesla into a self-driving car nor does it make a car autonomous.

How many self-driving Teslas are on the road? ›

Tesla's crashes happened while vehicles were using Autopilot, "Full Self-Driving," Traffic Aware Cruise Control, or other driver-assist systems that have some control over speed and steering. The company has about 830,000 vehicles with the systems on the road.

Which car has the best self-driving technology? ›

Car and rankingEase of useS-bend test
1. Tesla Model Y55
2. Audi RS Q854
3. BMW iX353
4. Nissan Qashqai44
6 more rows

What car drives itself? ›

Tesla cars come standard with advanced hardware capable of providing Autopilot features, and full self-driving capabilities—through software updates designed to improve functionality over time.

How much does a Waymo car cost? ›

How Much Does a Self-Driving Car Cost? According to former Waymo CEO John Krafcik, in an interview with German publication Manager Magazin, a Jaguar I-Pace equipped with Waymo's sensors and computers costs no more than a moderately equipped Mercedes-Benz S-Class. So likely in the $130,000-$150,000 ballpark.


1. Is Baidu's Self-Driving Taxi the future of transportation?
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3. Project Prometheus: Mercedes & The Story of Self-Driving
4. The 2023 Annual Holocaust Commemoration honors victims and survivors of the Holocaust
(Montgomery College)
5. 2015 Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion
6. Robotics
(The Great Courses • S1 E14 • Self-Driving Vehicles)


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