By Chris Adams

On city streets in Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, and several other cities around the nation, cars move themselves with a human minder – but not a human driver.

That’s the state of autonomous vehicles in 2018, and it’s one that experts predict will rapidly escalate to a time when cars whiz down the highways with their disengaged passengers snoozing, reading or just watching the scenery.

In a National Press Foundation program, one of the nation’s leading experts on autonomous vehicles gave fellows an overview of where the technology stands – and why he thinks it will only accelerate.

Even so, Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, cautioned fellows to “beware the hype.”

“The road to full automation will be replete with multiple speed bumps and potholes,” Rajkumar said. “Self-driving vehicles will be eventually safer than human-driven vehicles.”

The benefits for self-driving cars are clear. According to Rajkumar, about 1.3 million people die every year in automotive accidents globally; traffic delays are expensive; senior citizens and the disabled lose their independence and self-esteem when they lose their ability to drive; and car ownership is not cost-effective for many urban residents.

Self-driving vehicles can mitigate much of that. It’s evident that cars equipped with a range of sensors can do a better job than humans – distracted, sleepy, irritable, drunk, sight-impaired, overconfident, aging humans. Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce accidents and the injuries, deaths and insurance claims that come with them. They also can make the roadways more efficient as they reduce the irregular gaps that emerge when humans navigate the roadways.

“Self-driving cars are no longer science fiction,” Rajkumar said. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when.”

Rajkumar described the technology behind driverless vehicles, as well as the technological and regulatory hurdles that remain. He also talked about a society in the year 2040 in which accidents are down and urban sprawl is up – if people can be productive while commuting, they can live farther away from their job sites.