Self-driving cars are coming

The prospect of autonomous, battery-powered cars taking over seems the stuff of science fiction.

A fleet of self-driving cars, transporting the populace around the country not on gasoline but electricity. It would upend how humanity gets from A to B and likely mean an end to one of the oil industry’s largest markets.

The question around that technology is not if but when and how, experts said Tuesday at the IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston.

“They are definitely coming but maybe not in the way portrayed in the media. It’s unlikely this will be on huge global roll out, but will start in the cities and move out from like [cell phone] networks did,” said  Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz , general manager at the Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center.

Momentum is already growing.

Volvo has announced it will begin production on an autonomous car by 2020. And the White House is taking steps to adjust U.S. road regulation to allow self-driving cars.

One of the critical issues will be determining what level of risk the government will allow, said Jason Miller, deputy director for the U.S. National Economic Council.

“Our starting point is we have 90 Americans dying on the road each day,” he said. “Every day we are holding back technology that could be safer we are costing lives.”

But there remains skepticism consumers would readily give up driving in favor of a computer, even if it did allow them to get their work done or read a book on their morning commute.

There is the question of what would happen if the computer fails.

“We only need it to fail once in a dramatic way can bring this all to a halt, no matter how many lives are being saved,” said Alexander Edwards, president of the consulting firm Strategic Vision.

And then there is the role cars play in our lives, particularly American lives.

“People still buy into the idea of freedom when they buy a vehicle. But that doesn’t change the fact your Monday to Friday commute typically sucks,” Tylman said.