This post originally appeared on June 18, 2015.
Once a far-flung idea, the driverless car is now pulling into the forefront of reality. But one senior in high school had similar thoughts along the lines of Google, several years before the tech giant was even founded. And he won an award for it exactly 23 years ago to this date.
Upon high school graduation, Kevin Chang won a district science award for engineering solutions for traffic flow. It’s no surprise he felt inspired to change this problem — he lived in L.A., a city reputed for being ensnared in bouts of traffic. What did surprise, however, was Chang’s approach to use programming to solve it.
“I’ve been stuck in too many traffic jams,” he told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times after he received his award. “I would love to solve L.A.’s traffic problems, and I’d like to have someone else — the computer— drive my car for me.”
It goes without saying that Chang didn’t magically solve L.A.’s traffic woes. But he was onto self-driving cars, something that is just now gaining momentum.
The computer program Chang developed aimed to improve traffic flow through one defining principle: automatic control. By automatically controlling the braking and accelerating, traffic would flow with more finesse and speed. Although the premise seems simple, the rapid-fire decision making of a computer made its uses three-prong: 1. Cars could drive faster 2. They could drive more closely/safely, which means 3. They could fit more of them on the freeway. Ergo, less traffic.
Plus, we could forget about all the people who drive like this.
Chang tested out this idea by mounting an infrared sensor on the front of a car in order to monitor the car’s proximity to traffic and objects. A high school student strapped for time and cash, he didn’t get around to programming video and sonar equipment to help steer. But that doesn’t mean his ideas weren’t innovative. Google’s current driverless car uses a laser range finder to generate a 3D map of the surroundings, as well as mounted radars that allow the car to process traffic at high speed. With other elements like GPS and a wheel encoder working together, the car is set for its formal introduction in 2020.
Chang (and Google’s) efforts are more than just a marvel of engineering — they address a bigger picture as well. Self-driving cars could do more than just prevent traffic accidents. They could help get disabled people get to work, or give the elderly the gift of mobility. When it comes down to it, Chang was doing what many programmers have done before him, and will continue to do — find a way to make daily life better for others.
Make yourself useful.