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CMU Celebrates 30 Years of the Self-Driving Car

The technology might be 30-years-old, but self-driving cars are still in their infancy, according to Carnegie Mellon University Professor Raj Rajkumar.

CMU’s College of Engineering last week threw a birthday bash for the self-driving car, which was “born” on campus in 1984.

“It was a moment to enjoy,” Rajkumar said.

Thirty years ago, research began with Terregator, the first self-driving car that could travel the distance of about one football field in an hour. A couple years later, researchers adapted the technology to a Chevy panel van that had a top speed of about 20 mph.

Now, the university is working on its 14th autonomous vehicle, a 2011 Cadillac SRX, which can handle on-ramps, off-ramps, merging onto highways and can cruise at 70 mph. From the outside, the car looks like any other because cameras, lasers and sensors that give it a 360-degree view of the road are embedded in the body.

“We are very optimistic,” Rajkumar said. “We are at, I think, almost an inflection point where the technology required to make this a reality are maturing, are cutting down costs dramatically.”

With adaptive cruise control and active park assistance already installed in commercial vehicles, Rajkumar expects by 2020, cars will include traffic jam assistance and a virtual valet feature that will enable cars to park themselves via a smartphone app.

But don’t run to the dealership just yet because fully autonomous vehicles won’t be available for another 30 to 40 years, according to Rajkumar. Instead, new features will be integrated and standardized over time.

“These self-driving capabilities will get introduced very incrementally in very natural, incremental steps,” Rajkumar said. “It will be an organic growth path.”

When fully autonomous vehicles do hit the market, Rajukumar said the technology will bring new legal challenges.

“If something goes wrong, who is liable? Is it the manufacturer? Is it the driver in the driver’s seat or somebody else?” he said.

But self-driving cars will come with plenty of positives. Rajukumar said the vehicles are expected to cut down on the some 1.2 million automotive deaths that occur each year worldwide.

“When computers are driving the vehicle, they do not have a lot of human problems,” he said. “They do not get distracted in any way, shape or form, so we do expect that safety will improve dramatically.”

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."