Self-driving cars are all the rage these days, and anyone that has even opaque ties to the automotive industry is keen to make wild — and sometimes completely unfounded — predictions about how quickly autonomous technology will replace human drivers. Some companies are just barely jumping on the autonomous bandwagon, but Mercedes-Benz began developing driver-less technology well before it became an industry trend.
The Stuttgart-based firm teamed up with European authorities to launch a project called PROMETHEUS on October 1st, 1986. The acronym ambitiously stood for “program for a European traffic of highest efficiency and unprecedented safety.” Working with other automakers, suppliers, government officials, and researchers, Mercedes wanted to find ways to make cars safer, to improve the flow of traffic, and to reduce emissions — the very same questions that manufacturers are still trying to answer today.
“It soon became clear to us that there would only be one solution for the increasing number of traffic issues. We had to integrate new technologies into road traffic – most of all microelectronics, sensors, telecommunications and information processing – as comprehensively as possible,” remembers Walter Ziegler, the PROMETHEUS project manager at Mercedes-Benz.
That was easier said than done in an era when no one had heard of a smartphone, an app, or Gmail. Mercedes’ first-ever self-driving prototype was named VITA (Vision Information Technology Application), and it was based on a van (pictured above) because the computers required to make autonomous driving possible took up a tremendous amount of space. Engineers fine-tuned the technology and soon managed to cram it inside a second prototype based on a w126-series S-Class, the biggest member of the Mercedes lineup at the time.
The components needed to make the S drive itself included small video cameras installed behind the windshield and the rear window as well as a powerful on-board computer. The S was truly autonomous, meaning it could drive, steer and brake without any input from the driver, but it was nonetheless a highly experimental prototype. The company remembers that the initial idea was to avoid collisions, not to replace the driver altogether.
Mercedes achieved a major milestone in October of 1994 when one of its autonomous test mules took a 621-mile (1,000-kilometer) road trip on public roads at speeds of up to 80 mph (130 km/h). Approved for road use by the German authorities, the prototype could autonomously change lanes in both directions and even pass slower traffic.
As far-fetched as it might have seemed at the time, the technology developed as part of the PROMETHEUS project paved the way for electronic driving aids such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking (AEB), and even satellite navigation. And while these features debuted on high-end sedans, they’ve been trickling down and they’re becoming increasingly common in cars from all over the automotive spectrum.