2019-05-21

My Time at the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit

Last week, I attended the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit, hosted in Princeton University by ORFE professor Alain Kornhauser. As someone with a physical disability, I've become excited of late about the possibilities that autonomous vehicles could offer people like myself as well as older people or people with cognitive disabilities, blindness, or even those without disabilities but live in poverty, while also wondering about the socioeconomic implications for such people with respect to the development of autonomous vehicles and associated systems in practice. Given this, I've been in conversation with Prof. Kornhauser about these issues for several weeks, and desirous of learning more & meeting people in the field, I attended the conference.

Laudably, the conference had the overall theme of prioritizing development of autonomous vehicle systems to serve the needs of those in marginalized groups (where marginalization could be socioeconomic or through disability). As I have been reading about some predictions about socioeconomic impacts for the last few months, presentations touching upon those aspects felt more familiar to me, but it was really interesting to also see the technical developments in this field, current innovations in transportation network development for elderly & disabled people, and psychological aspects to bear in mind with respect to popular acceptance of autonomous vehicles. For instance, with respect to the last point, it didn't really occur to me that some people in marginalized communities may feel a sense of social belonging with others at public transit stops as they are designed now and may feel more socially isolated in small autonomous vehicles.

The overarching concern at the conference was about the funding pressures being acutely felt following the incident of an Uber autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian in Arizona last year, along with the general failure of fully autonomous systems to materialize at this time despite predictions from 3-5 years ago that it would happen now. As a result, the tone of the conference felt more measured than some of the hype from that time might have suggested, yet there was an overall sense of optimism and motivation to do more work toward solving these problems. Even if fully autonomous cars fail to materialize, whether the problems are technical (i.e. they just won't work unsupervised) versus political (i.e. the number of accidents in testing becomes unacceptably high), I am personally optimistic about the possibility of working toward solving some socioeconomic inequities in transportation even with current innovations. Overall, I really enjoyed learning more and meeting new people, and am hoping to get more involved in this field in the future.

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