The Prometheus project laid the foundations of today's self-driving car technology.

The development of self-driving, autonomous cars has accelerated rapidly in the last few years. It’s even making headlines in the mainstream news. But the dream of a car that operates with no human input is almost as old as the car itself, and much of the technology that underpins the self-driving car as we now know it is older than you might think.

30 years ago, Mercedes’ parent company Daimler inaugurated a project that led to much of the technology that is now being used as the basis of its self-driving cars. The project was christened Prometheus, which stood for “Program for a European traffic of highest efficiency and unprecedented safety.” Catchy.

Several other European automakers, plus electronics and components suppliers, universities and research institutes, contributed to the project. The aim was investigate and develop technology that could be added to cars to improve the efficiency and safety of the road network as traffic volumes increased.

The project culminated in an S Class sedan fitted with a system dubbed VITA - “Vision Information Technology Application”. It featured a number of cameras that fed data to a central computer, which determined where the road went and how likely a collision was. The system could operate the car’s steering, throttle, and brakes, functioning as a genuine autopilot. In 1994, the VITA S Class drove for 620 miles (1000 kilometers) at speeds up to 80 miles-per-hour (130 kilometers-per-hour) on a highway, changing lanes and overtaking. Sound familiar?

Earlier versions of VITA needed so much computer processing power they had to be fitted to a van.

VITA led directly to the Distronic adaptive cruise control and Pre-Safe automatic emergency braking systems that Mercedes put into production a decade ago. Other Prometheus projects investigated route guidance systems, and ways for cars to communicate with infrastructure and each other. Lane keeping assist and parking sensors were born from the research carried out, as well.

Those technologies have, of course, long since been commonplace. And are vital elements of the self-driving car. That they're 30 years old is quite incredible.

Gallery: Mercedes project Prometheus