by Raj Sastry '20
Earlier this summer, Henry New and I traveled to Silicon Valley, California to study the rapidly developing field of autonomous vehicles under the Dorothy Marks Fellowship for Critical Inquiry. We’ve all heard that self-driving cars are right around the corner, but when? And when they do come, will they be safe? Further, how will the government regulate autonomous vehicles? These were guiding questions for us as we designed our study last March. And one week after Commencement, we set out to find answers.
Our first glimpse into the development of autonomous vehicles came courtesy of Mr. Sekhar Nori, a marquee figure in the world of autonomous driving, who currently oversees various phases of Nvidia Corporation’s research and development in that avenue. Nvidia, which has historically produced top-notch graphics cards, has diversified applications of their technology—in fact, they now supply Tesla with Autopilot. Nori, whom we interviewed at Nvidia’s avant garde and sprawling headquarters in Santa Clara, was able to show us their development headquarters of autonomous vehicles. Unfortunately, because recent high-profile accidents, Nvidia issued a stop order on all practical testing of their self-driving vehicles. Although we didn’t experience the technology firsthand, Mr. Nori was extremely accommodating and ensured that our experience was truly informative and exciting.
We were also fortunate enough to visit Intel’s campus and interview members of their autonomous vehicle development team. Intel entered the autonomy scene in spring of 2017 with the acquisition of Mobileye, an Israeli firm that used to supply Tesla with Autopilot, for $15 billion. Though most of the development is still happening in Israel, the Intel representatives who were familiar with their progress gave us excellent information regarding their ultimate vision for autonomy.
Autonomous vehicles come with great benefits, such as increased road safety. Without erratic human drivers, traffic may become a thing of the past, and the large-scale pollution caused by idling vehicles stuck in traffic jams could soon be alleviated. Further, disabled and elderly citizens who previously had to rely on others to drive them could regain freedom to travel wherever they please.
Though self-driving vehicles come with many advantages, there are still some pressing issues that need to be worked out before a car drives you to school. Some engineers we spoke to expressed reservations about quickly releasing an incomplete product, which could have disastrous implications on the road. Further, almost every representative who we spoke to stressed that public misunderstanding of the limitations of autonomous technology in its current form is dangerous for road safety—most notably the connotation of the word “Autopilot.” Finally, public policy is seriously lacking in terms of governance of the development of self-driving vehicles: almost every state has differing legislature, and the federal government has yet to propose anything on the national level. Finally, safe autonomous driving has profound economic implications in fields such as long-haul transportation: currently, the trucking industry employs as many as 10 million people. What’ll happen when their jobs become obsolete?
Still, though, the future of self-driving vehicles appears bright on the whole. Providing no major incidents occur for the foreseeable future, we could see fully autonomous vehicles—as well as the great benefits that come with them—on the road as early as the mid-2020s. It’s up to our generation, then, to find ways to implement them correctly, govern them appropriately, and find ways to lessen the economic impact they may have.
We are very grateful for the generosity of Mr. Robert E. Marks ’69 and Mrs. Mary S. Halsey, without whom this informative experience would not be possible. Our sincerest thanks also to Madam Beuchard and Ms. Duke for organizing the fellowships and to Mr. Bishop for facilitating this particular one. Finally, thanks also to Mr. Sekhar Nori, Mr. Sury Maturi, and all others who helped us along the way in California.