Driving Toward an Autonomous Future

I arrived at my office ready to engage in the rest of the day’s activities. On my one hour commute from my house on the beach, I had been able to participate in our weekly board meeting with partners from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. The Virtual Reality system in the Connected and Autonomous Transportation Vehicle (CATV) that had picked me up at my doorstep that morning had worked, as always, flawlessly and the global partners meeting in our secure virtual conference room had gone off without a hitch. I even had 15 minutes left over to enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the news and catching up on the day’s upcoming events.

How far, or how near, is this future? Not a day goes by when we do not read something in the press about progress in autonomous cars, virtual reality, artificial intelligence or a host of other digital technologies. Companies all over the world are innovating in these spaces at a fast and furious pace. However, and despite all the progress we read about, a myriad of technical, policy, legal, regulatory and even ethical challenges remain that must be overcome for a future such as this to become reality. In fact, I would argue that the ultimate, integrated system of systems solution appears distant.

CATVs are not about traditional automotive technology; they are about wireless communication, smart cities and smart infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, cybersecurity, 3D mapping, big data, functional sensors, electric batteries, 3D printing and other advanced technologies that have little to do with the traditional focus of the automotive industry. As a result, the job market of the future for students that graduate from universities like Purdue will be with new and different companies that integrate software, hardware, infrastructure, and autonomy systems and sell completely new products and systems into new, yet to be fully understood markets.

Leading universities around the U.S. and the world are making a strong, strategic push to be at the forefront of the development of these new technologies. State and federal research agencies are starting to develop programs that increasingly focus research funding and policy studies into these spaces. At Purdue’s Discovery Park, we are launching a new initiative focused on research, development, testing and evaluation of technological systems and human factors for the CAT future. Building on our long and illustrious history of excellence in transportation research, we are partnering with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, the Indiana Department of Transportation, the Indiana Governor’s Office, Deloitte Consulting, the Transportation Development Group and many private sector companies to explore the feasibility and opportunity to develop a state-of-the-art CAT testing and R&D facility next to the Purdue campus.

The idea is that such a facility would attract all the leading global suppliers of CAT technologies not just to test their technologies and system solutions in a simulated but well controlled urban and rural environment, but also to partner with Purdue faculty and students in developing next generation technologies and systems. Moreover, a facility such as this would serve as a magnet for federal and state resources to perform research on advanced sensors, AI, big data and analytics, communication, cybersecurity, safety, urban and landscape design, policy and regulation, ethics and other related topics.

This grand vision is compelling, but we are not the only ones thinking this way. Therefore, we need to lean on the tremendous interest of our faculty and students to develop a coherent strategic roadmap that will identify our competitive advantages, and will tell us where to play and how to win. To do this, we can build from a foundation of excellence.

Faculty at Purdue have been, and continue to be, involved in federal and state programs that focus on the future of transportation. Prof. Srini Peeta in the School of Civil Engineering has been a leader in the development of integrated and sustainable transportation solutions through his leadership of the NEXTRANS Center, a U.S. Department of Transportation center in operation since 2007. NEXTRANS’s Driving Simulator Laboratory is a quasi-living laboratory for mobility and safety research, interactive learning and outreach that develops behavioral and operational models and assesses impacts to address current and emerging needs. A new center, also supported by the U.S. DOT, and led at Purdue by Prof. Peeta in partnership with the University of Michigan and other Midwest universities, CCAT, will explore the full picture of how communities can best transition to connected and automated vehicles.

Prof. Greg Shaver in the School of Mechanical Engineering has partnered with Cummins and Peloton, a California Start Up, to explore the future of connected and autonomous class-8 trucks via a new grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). Prof. Darcy Bullock, also of the School of Civil Engineering is the longtime leader of the State of Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) Joint Transportation Research Program which facilitates collaboration between INDOT, higher education institutions and industry to implement innovations that result in continuous improvement in the planning, design, construction, operation, management and economic efficiency of the Indiana transportation infrastructure.

Similarly, Prof. Andrew Tarko, a world leader in transportation safety studies and in civil engineering, leads the INDOT-funded Center for Road Safety, which seeks to provide data and knowledge for a changing automotive transportation system, to foster and coordinate transportation research in both technical and policy areas.  Prof. Richard Voyles, in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, works with his students to develop 1/8th scale autonomous cars for testing behavior and performance in extreme environments.

In addition to these and other ongoing automotive and transportation research efforts, Purdue has exceptional capabilities through its faculty in the colleges of Science, Engineering, Agriculture, Liberal Arts, Health and Human Sciences and the Purdue Polytechnic Institute related to control systems, cybersecurity, AI and machine learning, landscape architecture, consumer psychology, policy, robotics and many other topics, all of which are related and fundamental to progress toward an autonomous future.

By weaving our strengths together into a tightly knit and coherent transdisciplinary effort, and creating the public and private partnerships necessary for success, I believe that when we sit in an autonomous vehicle fifteen or twenty years from now on the way to a new destination, we will be able to look back with pride at the role that Purdue University played in leading and enabling the success of the massive societal transformation that autonomy represents.

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