Interview with an Expert: A Spotlight on Self-Driving Vehicles

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Featured Expert in Autonomous Vehicles: An Interview with Dr. Kara Kockelman


Dr. Kara Kockelman is the Dewitt Greer Centennial Professor of Transportation Engineering at the University of Texas and a leading expert on autonomous vehicles and traffic engineering. Among her many honors, she has received the Beijing Overseas Talent Pool Award, the Google Research Award, the James Laurie Prize in Transportation Engineering, the Walter L. Huber Research Prize in Transportation Engineering, and the Young Researcher’s Award from the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Statistical Methods.

Dr. Kockelman has authored or contributed to more than 175 academic papers, books, and articles. She holds a bachelor's, a master's and a doctorate in civil engineering, as well as a master's in city planning—all from the University of California, Berkeley.

The Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles

Experts cite no shortage of the potential benefits of self-driving cars. According to Inside EVs, for instance, self-driving cars are closely linked with electric vehicles (EVs) and will, therefore, drive up EV adoption, reducing dependence on foreign energy and fossil fuels while minimizing carbon emissions. Some additional benefits of autonomous cars as reported by the Green Car Congress include reduced maintenance costs, less pollution, lower fuel costs, and fewer traffic accidents.

According to the award-winning civil engineer, University of Texas professor, and autonomous car expert Dr. Kara Kockelman, self-driving vehicles simply make driving easier and more cost-effective. Broad adoption, she believes, will promote a more efficient vehicle fleet overall while allowing people to spend more time on meaningful endeavors. Dr. Kockelman also hopes that the ease of transportation these cars provide will encourage people to rideshare.

“We’re really hoping to see shared autonomous vehicles and shared autonomous highly-efficient vehicles,” said Dr. Kockelman in an interview with OnlineEngineeringPrograms. “It’s called dynamic ridesharing, or DRS. It’s basically carpooling with people that you haven’t met before and the vehicle is keeping track of it all, and that’s lowering your costs even further.”

Dr. Kockelman suggests that the greatest benefit of self-driving cars is their safety potential. As the Green Car Congress also points out, the computers controlling even today’s early models of self-driving automobiles are far better behind the wheel than the average person, reducing accident risk.

“Crashes are one of the biggest things that we want to bring down because that’s a major cost for this nation and any nation in the world,” said Dr. Kockelman. “It’s getting close to $1 trillion a year in this country alone, so that’s getting close to $3,000 per person. That’s another big one, including for bicyclists and pedestrians who get mowed down by these cars.”

Another perk from self-driving cars: new job opportunities for budding engineers.

How Civil Engineers Are Driving Safety and Efficiency in Autonomous Vehicles

Designing, building, and testing self-driving vehicles draw upon several different engineering disciplines. According to CNBC and ZipRecruiter, the field is expected to add thousands of jobs in the coming years. Already the autonomous car market has boosted demand for several occupations, especially in engineering. The fastest-growing AV-related job titles in 2018 are:

  • Perception software engineer
  • Strategic account manager
  • Field service technician
  • Engineer
  • success field representative
  • Field autonomy engineer
  • Functional safety engineer
  • Autonomous navigation software engineer
  • Robotics engineer
  • Electrical engineer

Traffic engineering—a branch of civil engineering—is another promising field, notes the Central Penn Business Journal. Here are a few of the problems civil engineers are working through today.

Problem: Traffic Congestion

As driving becomes easier, more people will do it, which has major implications for traffic and safety patterns. Addressing the issue—especially in cities with congested bottleneck points like Austin and San Francisco—calls for both policy-savvy and engineering know-how.

“I always espouse a policy called credit-based congestion pricing,” notes Dr. Kockelman. In other words, there would probably be more toll roads, but with a bit of creativity, those funds could be redistributed in a way that further minimizes congestion.

“All of the revenues raised to manage that demand would go right back into travel accounts for everyone and can be used for shared bikes or ride-hailing apps, taxis, buses," she says. "Sharing is a nice way to use it, but it won’t be cashable to avoid fraud. We don’t let them take the cash out of the region.”

Dr. Kockelman and her colleagues also consider other issues that go along with having more cars on the road, like climate change and a decline in exercise.

“I think we really need to get people out of cars, sharing rides, and walking from stops so they’re not effectively door-to-door every time, which would be great. And I think tolling would help with that—a nice price signal to get people to do more efficient things, like take shorter trips and walk the rest of the way.”

Problem: Sensor Failure

Self-driving cars are becoming better and safer every year in part due to the development of more sophisticated sensors that feed the computer the data it needs to navigate the roadway safely. Still, severe weather and other events could interfere with them, creating a safety issue.

“There may be situations where you still have to take it out of the self-driving mode, and situations where the visibility is just so strained the sensors cannot figure it out,” said Dr. Kockelman, noting that cars are programmed to pull off the roadway in such situations. But what about ambulances and firetrucks? “We might have some remote control possibilities—somebody remotely might commandeer emergency vehicles.”

Problem: Boosting Efficiency Without Sacrificing Safety

One of the safety issues engineers must address as we move toward an automated vehicle fleet is headway—the amount of space between moving cars. With more cars on the road, shorter headway could reduce congestion, but also response time.

Dr. Kockelman notes that vehicles likely will not follow the policies as tightly as one might think, adding that she believes it will be “at least ten years before we feel so confident about the technology that we will force those computers to drive really close”—or about half the headway we typically see between cars. She suggests that’s a good balance not just for general safety, but for riders’ sense of security.

How to Get Involved With Self-Driving Cars

As previously noted, many of the most promising careers in the field of autonomous vehicles are in engineering and typically require at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant discipline. Fortunately, there are plenty of options.

Though the technology is relatively new, colleges and universities have become major centers of research and innovation for self-driving cars. Future engineering students do not necessarily have to wait until after college to get their metaphorical feet wet. What's more, the number of program options grows every year. Each year dozens of colleges nationwide compete in the SAE AutoDrive Challenge, for instance, including Michigan State University, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M University, and Kettering University, among others.

As far as what subject to study, specialties vary. There are many options, but some of the most popular ones are mechanical, industrial, civil, computer, or electrical engineering. Some schools even offer automotive technology engineering degrees.

Whichever discipline one chooses, Dr. Kockelman advises future students to choose something “rigorous” and “mathematical” and, ideally, to get involved in some type of computer programming. Students considering civil or traffic engineering may want to choose a program specialized for their specific interests.

“Transportation is a very wide major,” notes Dr. Kockelman. “There are lots of areas for people with very strong policy interests and planning interests, or environmental emissions interests. So there are lots of ways to get involved even if you’re not technically very strong.”

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