Ernst Dickmanns, the German scientist who tested self-driving cars on European streets in the 1980s and 1990 | Janosch Delcker for POLITICO
HOFOLDING, Germany — The other drivers wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual as the two sleek limousines with German license plates joined the traffic on France’s Autoroute 1.
But what they were witnessing — on that sunny, fall day in 1994 — was something many of them would have dismissed as just plain crazy.
It had taken a few phone calls from the German car lobby to get the French authorities to give the go-ahead. But here they were: two gray Mercedes 500 SELs, accelerating up to 130 kilometers per hour, changing lanes and reacting to other cars — autonomously, with an onboard computer system controlling the steering wheel, the gas pedal and the brakes.
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.
The story of Dickmann’s invention, and how it came to be all but forgotten, is a neat illustration 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.
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