Synthesis Blog

I can’t believe the semester is already coming to a close. Our look into the world of autonomous vehicles has been informative and engaging, and I feel that I have come out with a solid grasp on the current and near future states of self-driving cars. Over the course of these few months, I have individually examined five sub-topics in the AV field ranging from government regulation to consumer culture. I then took a more in-depth look at the various factors that are affecting the process of widespread adoption of AVs with my partner Alex. In this final blog post, I’ll recount what I look into this semester both on my own and with my partner and offer some parting thoughts on the current state of the industry and what I see as key points in determining when we’ll finally get AVs in public hands.

My first blog, “Are Smart Highways the Final Piece of the Puzzle,” looked into the way infrastructure affects autonomous cars’ ability operate. It turns out that things like road maintenance and markings can greatly help or inhibit the sensors these cars rely on. This blog details some of the obstacles of testing AVs on roads that are not in perfect condition. Additionally, the post looked into “smart” highway technology, or the incorporation of technology into the roads themselves and sampled some of the proposals for integrating information technology into the roads themselves.

My second blog, called “Do We Want our Cars to be More Autonomous than We Are?” looks into some of the more abstract potential drawbacks to AVs. The blog examined the American cultural affinity towards conventional automobiles and how many may be reluctant to give up the ability to drive themselves. It also investigated some of the privacy concerns that self driving cars bring up including the risks of personal going into the hands of auto manufacturers and the potential for invasive government surveillance.

My third blog, “Semi Autonomy Isn’t the Middle Ground We Want” takes a look at the current transitional period between human and machine driven cars, which is marked by cutting edge driver aids like Tesla’s Autopilot mode. Despite these features, today’s cars are ultimately still under the driver’s control. The blog questioned whether level 3 autonomy is worth investing in when there is evidence to suggest that more gadgets and gizmos in the drivers seat can actually make driving more dangerous.

The fourth post I made was called “The DARPA Challenge and Government Involvement in Autonomous Cars Going Forward.” It detailed some of the early history of AVs in the government sponsored DARPA challenge, where teams ran self-developed autonomous cars in long distance races throughout the 2000s. It questioned the general sentiment in the AV community that the government is an obstacle rather than a catalyst to getting AVs on the road. The Department of Defense was the first major sponsor of AVs with the DARPA challenge. At the same time, the government has not been as enthusiastic or committed to an autonomous future since the DARPA stopped running in 2013.

My fifth and final blog, entitled “The Race to be First: Does it Matter?” looked into the still competition between leading AV manufacturers to be the first company to get their product on the road. It investigated what exactly the value of being first is and looked at a currently unfolding lawsuit between Uber and Waymo that sheds light on the cutthroat nature of the AV industry and demonstrates just how far these firms are willing to go to be first.

Towards the home stretch of the semester, my partner Alex and I examined what factors are determining when we’ll see self driving cars on the road. We broke these factors up into two categories; consumer adoption factors and manufacturer success factors. In we took an in depth look at what information and considerations individuals will make in the near future when they are tasked with choosing to buy or not to buy an autonomous car. Factors we examined included trust in this technology, cybersecurity, and privacy concerns. The companies making these AVs must grapple with some of the same things, but must also consider government legislation, safety standards, competition, and scalability as they develop their business models going forward. Through our research, we came to the consensus that regardless of how flawless AV technology is, we will only ever make the transition if we collectively decide on investing in a future without drivers. The most basic principle of economics is supply and demand. In the AV industry, there are numerous manufacturers supplying the hard and software. What we need going forward is a more defined demand for AVs on both the consumer and government levels. This means investing in new infrastructure that is suitable to self driving cars and passing legislation that encourages the growth of the AV industry. It also means that consumers, particularly in America, are going to have to reconcile their historic visceral connection to automobiles with a desire for a safer and more efficient future. Perhaps the most significant thing I took away from this course was that the technology for autonomy in cars is ready to go. I had no idea that companies like Waymo and nuTonomy had more or less fully developed functional AVs that are able to navigate the complex traffic situations of a modern city. These companies have done their part in contributing to the next great transportation revolution. Now the future of mobility as we know it is in our hands. We’ll just have to wait and see what we do with it.


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