When it comes to Autonomous Vehicles the U.S. Cannot Afford to be Left in the Dust

Compared to other industrialized nations, Americans spend far more time behind the wheel than drivers in other nations. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average American drives 13,000 miles each year. That is equal to one trip around the Earth, and 18 full days spent in the car every two years.

However, the American affinity for automobiles was not always a given. Abandoning the horse and buggy for self-propelled vehicles was met with reasonable cynicism, as reported by the New York Times in 1928. At the time, the New York Times argued a horseless carriage would be significantly faster, and, therefore, inherently more dangerous. Moreover, they argued that because a horse is a living, breathing animal with instincts and a sense of direction, it is not likely to run into brick wall, even at the behest of a rider.

In some respects, the dangers articulated by the Times were realized. Although the automobile has contributed to the advancement of our society, this advancement has come at the cost of precious human life. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), on average, over 100 people die every single day due to traffic collisions. Furthermore, NHTSA has also found that human error is involved in 94–96 percent of all accidents.

However, this statistically morbid reality does not discourage Americans from driving. Instead, we soberly acknowledge these risks when we get behind the wheel of a vehicle, and as a society, have created seatbelts and other safeguards to minimize these risks.

Yet, despite all the precautions that can be taken, they all fail to address the elephant in the room when it comes to driving — the same elephant that existed when Henry Ford rolled out his Model T all those years ago: human error is an innate factor when driving a vehicle that can result in bodily harm and death.

Transitioning to autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, could eliminate the human error that is responsible for thousands of deaths each year. Furthermore, according to NHTSA, “the safety benefits of automated vehicles are paramount.”

Beyond the benefits of leading to a reduction in death and injury, autonomous vehicles also have the potential to yield significant economic benefits. NHTSA estimates that in 2010, vehicle crashes resulted in a $242 billion loss in economic activity and a $594 billion cost due to loss of life and decreased quality of life due to injuries.

Transitioning to autonomous vehicles and eliminating the human factor that contributes to loss of life would presumably eliminate significant costs to our national economy and overall wellbeing. Moreover, it has been estimated that up to tens of thousands of jobs could be created with the rise of self-driving cars, further stimulating the U.S. economy. Additionally, autonomous vehicles hold the promise of giving greater independence for those currently unable to drive, for example allowing seniors and people with disabilities to lead lives of greater self-sufficiency and independence.

The benefits of self-driving cars are significant. However, similar to the early 20th century, technological advancements give legitimate reasons for individuals to be skeptical. That is why this week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce will hold an important hearing on the state of autonomous vehicles in the U.S.

During this hearing, we hope to critically examine the risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles and more specifically, the risk of the U.S. drifting too far behind its global competitors. Although the U.S. is currently ahead of China when it comes to self-driving cars, we could lose that momentum and our position if we do not make this a national priority as they have.

In any event, our approach to autonomous vehicles cannot be driven by the same anxiety and apprehension of those who feared the demise of the horse and buggy. When it comes to self-driving cars, change is coming, and we can either lead from the front or be left in the dust.

U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) represents Illinois’ 1st District and is a senior member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and a former chairman of the then-Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Dr. Larry. Bucshon (R-Ind.) represents Indiana’s 8th District and is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

View the article in TheHill.com.

Opinion: Investment in autonomous vehicle industry could reap 75K jobs

As we embark upon a new decade, it’s hard to miss the technological advances happening all around us. Arizona in 2020 is a state ripe with investment in cutting-edge technology, one where entrepreneurship is thriving and the breakthroughs of tomorrow are happening right in our own backyard.

Arizona’s autonomous vehicle sector is a prime example of how our state has positioned itself to be on the leading edge of the future. After all, it’s where The New York Times said “self-driving cars go to learn.”

While it’s easy to imagine a future zipping around the state in driverless cars, what hasn’t been simple is measuring the actual economic impact of this future for our state. But economist Jim Rounds crunched the numbers and recently released a report for the Arizona Chamber Foundation on the various models and assumptions for Arizona. One thing they all point to? By leading other states, Arizona is poised to reap a disproportionate share of the billions in economic growth and investment this new industry will bring.

Rounds estimates – conservatively – that a $6.1 billion investment in autonomous vehicle research and development would lead to over 75,000 new Arizona jobs across the industry itself and in supporting industries by 2026. To put this in perspective, the growth alone in autonomous vehicle-related work in the next few years will employ more than double the number of Arizonans working in state government.

Much of this growth can be attributed to the way Arizona has uniquely positioned itself among the states to provide a welcoming environment to innovators. For example, thanks to an executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey, the Arizona Commerce Authority now houses the Institute of Automated Mobility, a team that bridges government, innovating companies, and higher education institutions to facilitate the safe development of these technologies.

Higher education is actually a critical part of this consortium. By training students for a high-tech industry poised to grow here at home, Arizona’s colleges and universities are simultaneously meeting the industry’s demand and retaining Arizona’s best and brightest.

We are investing in a workforce designed to grow with the autonomous-vehicle industry, positioning our state as the top location for additional investments by companies working in this space.

In fact, Arizona’s universities are partnering with the firms pioneering this technology to graduate engineers and software developers. That means the students we are investing in at our state universities are staying here, working here, and keeping their economic contributions here in Arizona.

But it’s not just our universities. Community colleges in Phoenix’s East Valley and Pima Community College in Tucson have developed training programs in cyber-security and autonomous truck operation that are training Arizonans directly for high-demand jobs in the workforce.

With more Arizonans taking jobs in this promising, high tech field, and companies like Waymo and Intel – which in 2017 purchased Israel-based autonomous tech firm Mobileye – expanding their research, development, and manufacturing footprints to support that growth, there is also substantial benefit to the state and local governments in tax collection over the next decade.

If we continue to support the growth of autonomous-vehicle technology in Arizona, it will yield significant resources to state and local governments that can be re-invested in priorities like education and public safety. Rounds estimates that an additional $250-350 million in taxes could be collected by 2026 in autonomous-vehicle sector growth alone, using a conservative approach to modeling the calculations. Those are substantial resources for reinvesting in our state’s priorities.

Rounds’ calculations give us a clear vision for Arizona’s economic future if we continue on the path of welcoming the forward-thinking industry. It’s an Arizona with 75,000 more people working in good-paying jobs, an Arizona training our students for the jobs of the future, and an Arizona that’s reaping the benefits of a growing, successful tax base.

But perhaps more important than any of the economic growth that Arizona will gain by being a leader is the potential impact to road safety we stand to gain. Over 800 people die in fatal car crashes in Arizona each year. Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to bring that number down dramatically by reducing the human error that is the cause of so many accidents. It’s why groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Safety Council have partnered with Waymo here in Arizona. We owe it to ourselves in Arizona to welcome technologies that have potential to keep our roads safer and save lives.

As this new analysis methodically predicts, Arizona can anticipate a bright, safe, and economically prosperous future if we continue to welcome innovation and resist overregulation.

— Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the chairman of the Arizona Chamber Foundation.

Ford to Add 3,000 Jobs in Detroit

By David Eggert, Tom Krisher

Ford Motor Co. is adding 3,000 jobs at two factories in the Detroit area and investing $1.45 billion to build new pickup trucks, SUVs, and electric and autonomous vehicles.

The company said Tuesday that about $750 million will go the Michigan Assembly Plant in the Detroit suburb of Wayne, where 2,700 jobs will be added during the next three years. Another $700 million will be invested in the truck plant in Dearborn, where 300 new jobs will be added.

Hiring will begin next year for the jobs that will pay on average about $61,000 a year.

The large investment comes as the U.S. new vehicle sales cycle has peaked and appears to be leveling off around 17 million vehicles per year. But Ford needs to make the investment in new products in an effort to increase its market share and prepare for a shift to new propulsion and autonomous vehicle technologies.

The Wayne plant investment will be used to build the new Ford Bronco SUV, as well as an all-new Ranger small pickup truck. Investment at the plant also result in a new center to modify and support autonomous and other vehicles.

Ford says the Dearborn plant will get the next generation of the F-150, as well as hybrid and electric versions of the truck. The investment includes battery assembly for the electric trucks.

The F-150 is the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. and is Ford’s franchise, generating most of the company’s profits.

Workers at the Wayne plant will modify and finish Ford’s first autonomous vehicles starting in 2021, including the installation of self-driving technology and interiors built for autonomous travel, Ford said. The truck plant in Dearborn will build the new trucks as well as assemble battery cells into full packs for the hybrid and electric F-150s.

Michigan’s economic-development arm, the Michigan Strategic Fund, on Tuesday approved state tax incentives for Ford that are worth approximately $35 million over 15 years. Michigan was chosen for the expansions over competing sites in Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Canada, Mexico and countries outside North America, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“This is great news for Michigan autoworkers, their families and our economy as a whole,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “I’m glad Ford recognizes that Michigan is home to some of the most innovative, hardworking people in the world, and has opened up opportunities for 3,000 new good-paying jobs in our state.”

In seeking approval of the tax breaks, state officials said the incentives would offset some of the increased costs associated with doing business in Michigan instead of competing locations.

The announcement of new blue-collar jobs came about seven months after Ford revealed plans to part ways with 7,000 white-collar workers worldwide, including 2,300 in the U.S. About 1,500 left voluntarily or with buyouts and another 800 were let go, largely in and around the company’s headquarters in Dearborn.

Ford’s tax breaks include up to $26 million in “Good Jobs” incentives that will let the company keep 100% of state income taxes from the 3,000 jobs for up to 10 years. The program, which is used to attract large-scale business expansions, will expire at month’s end after the Legislature declined to renew it and raise the $200 million cap to $500 million.

The incentives earlier this year helped to entice Fiat Chrysler to build an assembly plant in Detroit, expand another assembly factory in the city and add jobs at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant.

MEDC CEO Jeff Mason said he is hopeful that lawmakers will consider continuing the program when they return to session in January. Such incentives have been criticized by some as corporate handouts.

“We believe it’s been a very effective tool. The 11,200 high-paying jobs and $6.4 billion of private investment reflect that,” he said.

The ‘Motor City’ Welcomes PTIO

Lt. Governor Gilchrist, Rep. Stevens, and Michigan Stakeholders Participate in Workshop on AVs and the Workforce

This week’s workshop in Detroit, Michigan – co-hosted by the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO) and the Detroit Mobility Lab – elicited a variety of viewpoints on how to prepare Michigan’s workforce and communities for the transition to a society with autonomous vehicles.  Participating in the event were Congressional representatives, educators and researchers from Michigan State University, industry representatives from Ford and Nissan, and government and non-profit leaders from the Governor’s office, the City of Detroit, and many others.

The workshop, which kicked off with remarks from Congresswomen Haley Stevens and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, featured a moderated discussion led by representatives from WINintelligence (providing the workforce perspective), the Detroit Mobility Lab (providing the technology and investment perspective), the William Davidson Foundation (providing the economic vitality and entrepreneurship perspective), the Office of Governor Whitmer (providing the government perspective) and Michigan State University (providing the education perspective).

Concluding the discussion, Axios’s Joann Muller provided an expert synopsis on the key takeaways from the workshop, including:

– The importance of collaboration: “Nobody can do this by themselves; everybody is learning from everyone else,”
– The need for interdisciplinary training: “Training kids to think critically, and creatively, with analysis, is really important,” and
– The importance of diversity in the workforce of the future.

This week’s event rounds out a year of PTIO listening sessions and discussions in potentially impacted communities throughout the country, including in Indianapolis, Indiana, St. Louis, Missouri and Columbus, Ohio.  In 2020, PTIO will continue to advance what we’ve learned in these important discussions into action.  We look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months.

The Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Work Are Not At Odds

November 20, 2019

By Amitai Bin-Nun, SAFE, and Kathryn Branson, PTIO

In mid-November, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang published an op-ed depicting a grim future for American workers at the hands of automation. With the subtitle, “Self-driving trucks will be great for the GDP. They’ll be terrible for millions of truck drivers,” the op-ed painted technological advancement and the future of work as a zero-sum game.

While it is important to focus attention on the need to train, develop, and prepare the workforce for the jobs of the future, it is wrong to characterize technological progress as happening at the expense of workers. When it comes to innovation and the U.S. labor force, the choice does not have to be binary.

As organizations committed to maximizing the public benefits of autonomous vehicles (AVs), both PTIO and SAFE are dedicated to improving outcomes for the workforce of the future and wider society by embracing both the tremendous potential of automation and proactively preparing workers for the changes to come.

With the right policies and investments, the United States can enjoy the significant benefits automation provides while also supporting our workforce as we transition to an AV future.

So, what benefits can we already identify today?

 According to a SAFE report, America’s Workforce and the Self-Driving Future, publishedin 2018, full AV deployment could lead to nearly $800 billion in annual social and economic benefits by 2050.

(This table is a projection of the societal and consumer benefits of full AV deployment. These will phase in over time and cumulative benefits may exceed $6 trillion by 2050)

Cumulatively, these benefits will total as much as $6.3 trillion by 2050. AVs hold the promise of achieving such significant gains by greatly improving road safety—94 percent of fatal accidents are due either wholly or in part to human error—reducing congestion and vehicle pollution, and allowing people to reclaim time lost from sitting in traffic. Finally, the report makes clear that partial automation of trucks (up to Level 3) will not reduce employment, with additional studies projecting increases in trucking employment.

At the same time, our work continues in identifying, anticipating, and addressing the potential impacts AV deployment will have on the workforce. The SAFE study, based on work by scholars including Dr. Erica Groshen, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dr. Susan Helper, the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Dr. J.P. MacDuffie of the Wharton School, found that millions of driving jobs could be partially automated over a time period of 30 years. In light of their analysis, we fully acknowledge that deployment of AVs could present challenges for some workers.

(This figure is a projection of the marginal increase in the unemployment range based on a more aggressive “high” faster deployment scenario and “low” scenario with slower deployment) 

The good news is that since this transition will take place incrementally over an extended period of time, we have the opportunity to prepare and act proactively to ensure a smooth transition. We have, as a nation, done this before: Agricultural jobs went from 41 percent of American jobs in 1900 to 1.3 percent today—and in the words of MIT economist David Autor, “It’s not because Americans stopped eating.” Similarly, over the last 30 years, middle-class jobs have increasingly required computer skills, and the workforce has largely managed to keep pace with this evolving need.

How do we prepare the workforce for AV deployment?

First, we need to acknowledge the issue – both the opportunities and challenges. The attention it is receiving during the 2020 campaign is evidence of greater awareness of automation.

However, society would be poorer—by up to $800 billion per year by 2050—if we stifled innovation. Instead, we must engage in a broad range of policy efforts to 1) proactively work with stakeholders and  technology developers to understand future skill needs and train drivers well in advance of any AV-induced displacement, with a particular concentration on jobs which overlap skills with drivers’ existing skill sets; 2) identify career pathways borne from deployment of AV technology; and 3) support evidence-based policies and programs to prepare workers for an AV future and mitigate any disruption.

Fortunately, some of these policy measures are already underway. SAFE and PTIO have endorsed the Workforce DATA Act sponsored by Senators Gary Peters and Todd Young, which would track and collect critical data measuring automation’s impact on the workforce that would support the policies discussed above.

Additional examples of the sort of policies that would support the workforce’s evolution with technology include those that foster a culture of lifelong learning, enabling workers to retool their skill set over the course of their career as their work needs evolve. 

There are challenges in preparing the workforce for emerging technologies and there is no silver bullet that will solve this complex policy issue. SAFE and PTIO will continue to work for a broad range of thoughtful policies to answer outstanding questions around what AV technology will mean for the workforce through supporting additional research efforts, modernizing workforce training, and using evidence-based methodologies to ensure that society advances AV technology in ways that improve quality of life and economic opportunity for all Americans.

PTIO, DriveOhio Host Discussion on AVs and Ohio’s Workforce

Columbus, Ohio — Today, the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO) – whose members include the American Trucking Associations, Daimler, FedEx, Ford, Lyft, Toyota Motor North America, Uber, UPS and Waymo – joined stakeholders from industry, academia, and the public sector for an important discussion on autonomous vehicles and workforce impacts in Ohio.

“In visiting different communities across the country, PTIO has heard from a variety of stakeholders with a strong desire to effectively transition their workforce to a future with autonomous vehicles,” said Kathryn Branson, PTIO’s executive director. “With Ohio’s particularly strong focus on autonomous vehicles and associated workforce impacts, as evidenced in the creation of DriveOhio and the mission of the office of workforce transformation, it is abundantly clear that these are communities that are carefully considering the opportunities and challenges that may accompany emerging technologies. PTIO looks forward to continuing to work with these stakeholders to ensure workers in Ohio and across the country can secure opportunities in an autonomous vehicle future.”

The event, which included keynote remarks from Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, brought together a variety of perspectives, including education stakeholders from the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) and Youngstown State University; industry representatives from AAA, the Transportation Research Center, EmpowerBus, and Toyota; and government and non-profit leaders from the City of Athens, the Workforce Development Board of Central Ohio, and the Ohio Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation.

To view photos from the event, click here.

Studying the Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles on the Workforce

A multidisciplinary research team from Michigan State University will use a $2.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a four-year study examining the impacts of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.

Shelia Cotten, professor in the Department of Media and Information, who is a leading expert on the use and impacts of emerging technologies, will lead the team, which will draw from organizational psychology, economics, sociology, geography, technology and transportation engineering.

Serving as co-principal investigators on the project are Elizabeth Mack, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, and Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

“We are approaching the next phase of technological change where people will interact with autonomous machines in various contexts,” Mack said. “This project will help us understand these interactions and their impact on driving jobs, which is one of the first waves of workplaces expected to be impacted by this new wave of technologies.”

The era of automated vehicles will bring changing job requirements for workers who use vehicles, which will lead to the replacement of workers, Cotten said.

“Our research project will help determine the specific skills and skillsets needed to ensure that members of the current workforce, as well as the future workforce, are prepared for this transition,” she said. “This project will also identify the impacts of this shift on workers’ lives, which has not been frequently a focus in past research.”

Researchers will help determine:

  • How driving jobs will change in response to automation of vehicles and what new skills will be required.
  • How willing and able workers are to adapt to the changing nature of driving jobs, and whether the changing nature of jobs will disadvantage some groups of workers more so than others.
  • The anticipated downstream impacts on drivers (i.e., employment trends and income inequality) in the transportation industry, organizations and society.

Drawing on insights from organizational psychology, researchers will explore challenges related to personnel competency, human resource decisions, training and development and career management.

Engineering faculty will support the project in its focus on infrastructure and connected automated vehicle technology, the drivers behind the current paradigm shift in transportation.

The team will also use focus groups, surveys and skill mapping to identify the driving occupations that are most at risk for worker displacement and the occupations that will require worker retraining. Skills maps and occupational data will be used to estimate what changes will occur, as related to the diffusion of new technology and economic models. This will help researchers understand the potential for job loss, wage reductions and the impacts the changes will have on the workforce.

As part of the project, skills maps will be shared with education and workforce groups, who can develop new training and certificate programs, in order to mitigate job displacement. The project results will also be shared with the broader community, through a variety of webinars and training videos published to YouTube and visits to area high schools.

“MSU leads the way in studying sociomobility – the social, behavioral, policy and related impacts of mobility,” Cotten said. “With over 40 researchers across the university focused on sociomobility, MSU is the ‘go-to’ place for understanding the impacts of automated vehicles.”

The research team includes J. Kevin Ford, professor in the Department of Psychology; John Verboncoeur, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering; Peter Savolainen, associate chair for graduate studies in the College of Engineering; and Troy Hale, professor of practice in the MSU School of Journalism.

Click here for information on mobility at MSU.

PTIO Responds to Missouri Article on Local Protest

Re “Truckers gather at Capitol to push for new bill prohibiting driverless trucks,” Aug. 20.

PTIO – whose members include the American Trucking Associations, Daimler, FedEx, Ford, Lyft, Toyota Motor North America, Uber, UPS, and Waymo – formed in June 2018 with a commitment to advance AV technology in ways that improve quality of life and economic opportunity for all Americans. We support innovation in the transportation sector and the commonsense adoption of AVs, and our mission includes identifying how deployment of the technology will bring improvements to the way we connect people, goods, and services, while also addressing any challenges that could arise for some workers.

One area where we know automation will help is in addressing truck driver shortages – context that has been left out in recent articles. According to the American Trucking Associations, America had a shortage of 51,000 truck drivers at the end of last year. That statistic is compounded by the fact that the median age of a long-haul trucker is 49 years old – seven years older than the median U.S. worker.

Additionally, several recent studies indicate that the transition from traditional to autonomous vehicles will take time, particularly in the case of trucks. The most aggressive AV adoption models project that fully autonomous trucks will not be in the mainstream until the early 2030s, while a more conservative analysis projects that fully autonomous trucks under all conditions are expected to only move forward in the 2040s.

Another study similarly found that the transition to automation in the trucking industry is expected to be gradual and that largely self-functioning, highly automated vehicles will not reach a high level of penetration in the trucking industry within the next decade.

Moreover, researchers found that AVs are largely expected to supplement rather than substitute vehicle operators even at the highest levels of automation; that said, they do forecast changes to skills required of a driver in order to support and maintain the technology associated with an automated truck.

Importantly, the forecasted deployment timeline affords policymakers and stakeholders the opportunity to pursue policies that reflect a comprehensive understanding of what the workforce transition will entail. (See: Freightwaves: “Automation is inevitable but will not displace driver jobs: IRU’s global innovation head”; CNBC: “The trucking industry needs more drivers to meet rising demand, especially from retailers who are under pressure to deliver to customers as fast as Amazon.”)

While there is time to be deliberate and thoughtful in our approach, PTIO does feel a sense of urgency to engage with impacted communities across the country. In fact, we recently convened a town-hall style event in Missouri where we brought together local leaders and other stakeholders for a discussion on the impacts of AVs, including workforce implications. To learn more, check out this article about the event in the local paper, and view an archived livestream of the event on our website.

PTIO Grows Workforce Coalition with Addition of UPS

Second Global Logistics Company Joins PTIO to Address Impacts of AV Technology on Workers

Washington, DC — The Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO) today announced that a new partner – the United Parcel Service (UPS) – has joined the coalition and its mission to advance autonomous vehicle (AV) technology in ways that improve the quality of life and economic opportunity for all Americans.

“PTIO now has two leading global logistics companies as members – representing a large contingent of the transportation and logistics workforce that could experience integration of autonomous vehicle technology in their fleets,” said PTIO Executive Director Kathryn Branson. “With UPS’s focus on enhancing mobility, empowering customers and understanding where new technologies impact innovation, its leadership is directly in line with PTIO’s mission of ensuring that workers benefit from society’s adoption of automated technologies. We welcome UPS as our newest partner and will value its contributions to further PTIO’s objectives.”

“UPS has a history of using innovation and technology to improve the lives of our customers, our employees and society at large,” said UPS Chief Human Resources Officer Charlene Thomas. “We are committed to developing solutions and educational opportunities that will enhance the work of our valued employees who remain a vital connection to our customers. We are pleased to join PTIO and look forward to advancing the mission of the coalition.”

Launched in June 2018, PTIO is led by its members at the American Trucking Associations, Daimler, FedEx, Ford, Lyft, Toyota, Uber, and Waymo, leading companies and associations that are working together with government, educators, and other stakeholders to examine the opportunities and challenges of AV deployment, and identify policies and programs that ensure our entire workforce can benefit from the adoption of AV technology.

These Women Are Building Uber’s First Self-Driving Car

It’s not just a far-off future: Autonomous vehicles are coming, and we have women to thank.

via Marie Claire, July 16, 2019

By Megan DiTrolio

Stepping inside Uber’s self-driving-car campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, feels like walking onto the set of a sci-fi movie. After checking in with security, you’re ushered past a wall of free snacks (as any good tech startup offers) into a bright open space designed for brainstorming sessions. On the other side of a glass wall opposite the floor-to-ceiling windows is a room that’s more futuristic garage than trendy startup, thanks to a fleet of vehicles all featuring the same spinning device—called “LiDAR”—on their roofs. What you’re seeing are some of the world’s first self-driving cars.

The site is home to the Advanced Technologies Group, ATG for short, the division of Uber devoted to bringing driverless, autonomous vehicles to the mainstream market. Since launching in 2015, ATG has prototyped five different car models, the last of which—a sleek and shiny white Volvo—currently cruises the streets of Pittsburgh (with a backup driver in the front seat; self-driving vehicles are not yet legal in Pennsylvania). That spinning LiDAR? It’s a 360-degree sensor, the car’s brain, so to speak. It is, in part, what makes these cars move without a person manning the wheel; an innovation that is transforming the transportation industry as we know it.

Autonomous vehicles feel freakishly futuristic but could soon be the new normal. And Uber claims they’re necessary. According to data, 1.3 million people die in car crashes every year globally, and 94 percent of critical crashes have drivers to blame(as opposed to car failures or environmental factors). To boot, more than 1 billion cars are sitting idle in the U.S. at any given time, meaning in many cities, up to 20 percent of available land is devoted to parking. With self-driving vehicles, Uber hopes to lower the death toll associated with crashes and decrease the sheer volume of cars on the road. (All autonomous vehicles will be modeled off Uber pool, picking up and dropping off multiple people, rather than transporting a single passenger).

The move away from personal rides and toward a sharing model seems obvious when you consider companies like Airbnb and Rent the Runway, both of which make borrowing feel environmentally friendly and chic. Not to mention cost-effective: Research by investment banking company UBS predicts that autonomous ride-sharing could decrease fares by more than 80 percent by 2030, which would average out to be less expensive than most public transit options.

Behind the industrial machinery, glossy cars, and general cool factor is a team of women quietly working to make the dream a reality. The program is led by ATG’s chief scientist Raquel Urtasun, who works out of the team’s Toronto research and development lab.

After studying electrical engineering, Urtasun became drawn to machine learning and started developing algorithms for smaller problems (including an algorithmthat scans a user’s photo to determine if her outfit is on point). She founded her own AI think tank, Vector Institute, before joining Uber’s team in 2017 (under the condition that she could keep her lab in Canada, where she is a professor of computer science at University of Toronto). With more than eight years of researching AI-based car technology under her belt, she was armed with the rare expertise needed for the job (a 2017 Wired article dubbed Urtasun an AI superstar).

Uber self-driving car

Raquel Urtasun, Uber ATG’s chief scientist. Courtesy of Uber


Listening to Urtasun talk about the tech behind driverless cars, it all sounds so easy. On a 3-D computer model, she demonstrates how one of her self-driving cars can weave through traffic or slow to stop at red light, as if she were playing a video game. But building the brain for an autonomous vehicle isn’t child’s play: Her team is tasked with creating a single AI algorithm that makes their driverless car smarter and safer than any cabbie.

Part of making tremendous strides in the development of the autonomous vehicles has been recruiting an all-star team of women—despite the massive boys club mentality in the tech space. “I come from the Basque region in Spain, where women have a very strong personality,” she says. One of her first hires was Inmar Givoni. The purple-haired, Israeli-born autonomy engineering manager has a big job: She and her team have to translate research into reality, building software that enables the cars to effortlessly merge lanes or brake if a dog runs into the street.

Givoni is not only the expert engineer at ATG, she’s also the resident voice for women in tech. When she’s not trying to crack the code to autonomous vehicles, she’s leading women in tech conventions and mentoring rising stars within the company and those who want in.

“When I came to Canada, it was the first time it dawned on me that there was an issue with women in computer science and AI,” Givoni says. “In Israel, it wasn’t equal, but I didn’t feel I was being held back because I was a woman. I came to Canada and I started to learn about this problem, and I became really active in the space.” Giovni is trying to change the culture from the inside out, starting as early as the job posting.

“The tech industry already uses a lot of ‘We’re looking for a superstar coder’ in job descriptions,” she says. “Research shows that words like that can potentially detract women and minority candidates. These are places where we need to pay attention.” That’s why her team crafts job posts with inclusive language in mind, leaning on words like “teamwork” over “competitive.”

Uber is working toward a goal of complete inclusion in its workforce. (Urtasun’s Toronto lab, which houses 50 employees, boasts an equal number of men and women.) But how will the company create a car that is safer for its female passengers?

I posed that question to Nastasha Tan, ATG’s head of design. She leads the division that considers the cars from the passenger’s point of view, from the positioning of the seats to the number of windows. Creating cars that have the safety of passengers, specifically women, in mind is at the forefront of her design: Though the cars are still in their very early days of development, she’s already brainstorming ways to increase rider safety, like the ability for the cars to illuminate the path to the door.

Despite the innovative work by the three women (and a total ATG team of 1,200), the road to, well, driverless roads hasn’t been an easy one: In March of 2018, in Tempe, Arizona, one of ATG’s self-driving cars struck and killed a pedestrian, prompting a nine-month hiatus during which the company reevaluated its safety measures. Since launching ATG, Uber has poured money into the program. Quartz reports that in 2018 Uber sank $457 million into the ATG division, and Uber recently nabbed a $1 billion investment in ATG, despite the business’s slipping profits overall and the fact that Uber’s IPO was well under previous valuations. (On its first day as a pubic company, stocks were priced at $45 a piece, nearly $30 shyof venture capitalists’ initial valuation.) But the team is confident that the extra effort—and fresh funds—will pay off.

Uber self-driving car

Urtasun presenting at an internal Uber women in technology conference. Courtesy of company.

Uber desperately needs driverless cars to work to replenish its massive investment. Of course, by replacing human drivers with robots, Uber is cutting a major expense, an ethical question in its own right; there are an estimated 3 million people who drive as a source of income. There’s also the race to be first: Just ask Elon Musk, who recently teased at an investor’s day that Tesla could unroll autonomous vehicles as soon as next year.

Urtasun, however, is in no rush. She doesn’t expect cars to drive the streets by themselves for years, and she credits Uber with giving her the opportunity to take her time in creating what she hopes will transform the transportation industry as we know it. She does, however, expect industry culture for women to change well before then. She and her team are certainly doing their part to make that happen: “We’re trying to showcase that it is possible to be a woman in AI,” she says. “We’re trying to showcase the possibilities.”

See the original article in Marie Claire

See additional media updates from PTIO here.