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California was testing self-driving cars 20 years ago

Demo 97 was a Congressionally mandated demonstration of self-driving cars that took place on Interstate 15 during 1997.
Demo 97 was a Congressionally mandated demonstration of self-driving cars that took place on Interstate 15 during 1997.

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Twenty years ago today, on August 7, 1997, Bill Clinton was president, Puff Daddy ruled radio and the Sylvester Stallone drama, Cop Land, dominated at the box office.

But there was something else going on in Southern California that’s still relevant today. Interstate 15 was playing host to the country’s largest autonomous vehicle test. Mandated by an act of Congress, and run by the Federal Highway Administration, it was called Demo 97. For four days, 21 different vehicles traveled more than 8,000 miles all by themselves.  

"Those cars were using human drivers, and steering, but they were using radars to pace off the vehicles in front of them and also following magnets in the pavement,” said Malcolm Dougherty, director of the California Department of Transportation. "Back then, that was very innovative. Today, we know we can’t put magnets in the pavement everywhere for cars to follow so now the modern car that has equipment like this is following the lane lines, using cameras."

CalTrans was one of several California organizations that participated in Demo 97. The University of California also participated, along with engineering firm Bechtel, aerospace company Lockheed Martin and now defunct Hughes Aircraft. The effort was led by General Motors, which deployed a fleet of eight Buick LeSabres in a platoon formation to move more cars, more quickly, and closer together, to ease congestion.

"I felt like I was at the Indy 500," U.S. Senator from California, Barbara Boxer, told a television news reporter after she hitched a ride in one of Demo 97’s Buicks.

Never mind that she only traveled a half mile on a closed course. Demo 97 also ran tests on 7-1/2 miles of HOV freeway lanes in San Diego, testing a lot of the systems that have only started showing up in cars recently. Things like collision and lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control, which automatically speeds up and slows down a car to keep pace with the vehicle in front of it.

At the time of Demo 97, traffic was doubling every decade without any new lane miles being added to the country’s freeway system, so the demo was designed in part as a test of technologies that could help double or even triple the flow rate of traffic. But there were other goals, like improving safety and reducing the environmental impact of getting around.

That’s right. All the same problems that modern autonomous cars are hoping to solve today were identified 20 years ago. It’s taken a couple decades, but today 36 different companies are testing self-driving cars on public roads in California in the hopes that in the very near future, they’ll no longer be a test but reality.