Larry Burns, the in-house visionary vice president at General Motors when he championed hydrogen cars and tiny self-driving pods for China, is still waving the banner for driverless cars as a University of Michigan professor. At a Washington forum on auto autonomy sponsored by Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) this week, he said the world is in "a new age of mobility," and "on a pathway to prove out driverless cars by 2018. It's a very significant development."

Burns says that self-driving cars will be far more fuel efficient, as well as much safer. "Self-driving cars can reduce the number of accidents by 90 percent," he said, "and that translates to 3,000 lives saved globally every day. That fact gives us a responsibility to move forward quickly."

Larry BurnsLarry Burns, shown here at the forum in Washington, D.C., is now a University of Washington professor, but he used to work for General Motors. (Photo: Noel St. John)

Burns got a second at the forum from a surprising source — pizza delivery. Domino's Executive Vice President Lynn Liddle said the company's independent contractor drivers cover 10 million miles a week. "A fully automated car wouldn't get lost, and it will get there faster. We also love the safety aspects of it."

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Robbie Diamond, who heads SAFE, said the biggest obstacle to self driving cars is "the vested interests that want to slow it down" (including fossil fuel interests.)

All this was an interesting prelude to the main self-driving event of the week — Tesla's unveiling of its Autopilot self-driving software, a $2,500 download for Model S (and X, presumably) owners. This isn't 2018, it's self-driving cars now.

Tesla Model S The Model S has a new bag of tricks, and one of them is hands-free. (Photo: Tesla Motors)

Autopilot comes with a caveat from Tesla CEO Elon Musk — this is beta software, he said, and if you use it, you're on your own. So much for the liability questions that Google and others are struggling with.

But for the adventurous, it works great. You can't get in the back seat, but as long as you're behind the wheel and attentive, the system (which uses radar and a camera, 12 ultrasonic sensors and GPS) will steer, manipulate the throttle and brakes, and generally lock in with the traffic in front of you. Your job, once you turn on active cruise control and the steering function, is to stop at traffic lights and make turns, though the system is adept at changing lanes if you use the turn signal.

Reports Jalopnik, "If you're rolling at even five miles per hour, the system seems to take over just fine, and it'll keep you going all the way up to somewhere north of 75 mph." There's a self- parking feature, and Automatic Emergency Steering. Caveats are that the system supposedly doesn't work all that well in bad weather, and it can get thrown off by some things — like the car in front of you deciding to change lanes. The Tesla might decide to follow, even if that's wrong for you. Construction zones could be an issue. And the absence of lane markers on certain roads upset the system. When problems arise, the driver is alerted to take back control with blue messages on the screen and audible alerts.

Remember, it's a beta test, and limited in what it can do. As Burns notes, don't expect to be texting your friends while the car drives in a year or two.

MCity self-driving cityMCity is a special 'city' in Ann Arbor, Michigan for self-driving cars to get real-world driving experience. (Photo: University of Michigan)

I haven't had a chance to drive one of these cars myself yet, but The New York Times has, and Aaron Kessler writes, "One of the most soothing aspects of the system was how natural the steering felt through the turns. To mimic a human driver is one of the big challenges automakers face in designing self-driving cars." The Tesla, he said, "was silky smooth."

You can take your hands off the wheel, even if it feels weird (but not in New York, where it's illegal). Both Volvo and Mercedes-Benz have semi-autonomous systems with some similarities, though Tesla's is perhaps the most advanced right now.

Burns said that to take self-driving cars to the next level, we need a concentrated test of 500 to 1,000 cars working together in real driving conditions. Such an experiment is developing in Burns' Ann Arbor, where MCity has set up a 32-acre campus just for that purpose. Read all about it here.

The New York Times takes a self-driving Tesla on the road:

And here's the complete SAFE forum:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.