Texas A&M students meet with industry reps to discuss future of autonomous vehicles

May 5, 2016
| By: Aubrey Bloom

The concept of autonomous cars and connected vehicles is simple enough to understand, but the actual implementation of the technology involved raises questions ranging from the technical to the legal and even the philosophical. Those questions, and the quest for their answers, were the topic of conversation at the Student-Industry Workshop on Connected Vehicles & Autonomous Transportation, which was held May 3 on the campus of Texas A&M University.

The student organized workshop, part of the Texas A&M Transportation Technology Conference, was sponsored by the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Dr. P.R. Kumar, engineering chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M, encouraged the students to organize and lead the workshop and said the result was a positive interaction between industry and students. 

"This workshop serves several purposes,” Kumar said. “Through graduate students, who are involved in much of the research output from academia, industry can find out firsthand about the excellent research that is being conducted at this university. We hope this interaction will lay the seeds for future research collaborations, graduate internship possibilities and potential job opportunities. Also, since research in connected and automation vehicles is spread out over a number of engineering departments, this workshop is a good opportunity for students to network with each other, learn about each other’s work and explore potential collaborations. Finally, a totally student-run workshop is a good accompaniment to the high profile conference yesterday that featured national leaders in this area."

Shyam Konduri, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M, was one of the organizers of the event along with electrical and computer engineering student Xi Liu and fellow mechanical engineering student Kaarthik Sundar. Konduri said the workshop went better than even he expected.

“I think it went really well because we had a lot of industry panelists and students presenting,” Konduri said. “The main reason we had this was to increase awareness between what industry is doing and what students are doing in other departments. This is an interdisciplinary thing, and there may be work overlapping or there may be opportunities to collaborate with other departments or students.”

Nine students presented on topics ranging from mechanical engineering graduate student Serdar Coskun discussing the development of lane-changing assistance systems to several students talking about systems that interact with human drivers. Operation of those systems containing both autonomous and human-driven cars was one of the primary issues. Since the market will not go from zero autonomous vehicles one day to all autonomous vehicles the next, the technology has to be designed to bridge that gap.

Liu said that having industry people hear and give feedback on students’ research topics was invaluable. “Sometimes we might work on very academic problems, and industry reps aren’t interested,” Liu said. “But here we can talk face-to-face with industry people and get their opinions on our work, and what they would suggest we work on in the future.”

Industry speakers included Gary Duncan, chief technology officer for Econolite; Steve Dellenback, vice president of research and development for Southwest Research Institute; Ravi Puvvala, chief executive officer for Savari Inc.; and Kevin E. Kautzman, director of telecommunications and technology services for BNSF Railway. 

The presentations ranged from Duncan’s technical descriptions of traffic control systems and future implementation in cars and infrastructure to Dellenback asking the crowd some philosophical questions of how autonomous vehicles would react in life-threatening situations. Kautzman talked about the impact on the United States’ rail system, which sometimes gets overlooked in the conversation because of the public’s fascination with driverless cars.

“I think there’s a lot of correlation from automobiles to trains,” Kautzman said. “There’s a lot of development that crosses both boundaries, and I think industry to industry we can help each other get those boundaries crossed and hopefully solve additional problems for each other. It definitely gives a lot of different perspectives on it.”

In fact, there is already a level of autonomy present in the nation’s railways. Kautzman talked about Positive Train Control, a safety feature in which locomotives can stop themselves without human interaction when a safety threat is recognized. The industry has been implementing Positive Train Control, or PTC, since the U.S. Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. He said having students focusing on issues in autonomy helps industry keep a fresh perspective.

“One of my takeaways from this is all of the good work the university is involved with to help our industry solve complex problems,” he said. “Sometimes I think industry gets a tunnel vision on what they’re trying to solve and how they’re to solve it, and I think having avenues and having forums like this broadens our industry’s mindset and gives us options. I think more importantly, it gives us the ability to see other developments within a technological challenge.”

John Barton, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives for The Texas A&M University System, said he was impressed not only with the students who presented their research, but also by the reaction to it.

“The industry people seemed to be very intrigued with our students’ work, but also their intellectual capabilities,” he said. “I think it was a great opportunity to showcase that we have some of the best and brightest minds here on campus working on some of the most cutting-edge challenges facing us in the 21st century.”

Barton added that bringing Texas A&M students who are conducting research into contact with industries where that research could be applied is a critically important role for TEES.

“We have the opportunity interact and dialogue with industry on a regular basis,” Barton said. “We can bridge that gap between the applied applications of the research that’s being done and the theoretical aspects that they get in the classroom. Without TEES playing a role in providing those connections, there are opportunities that will be lost. Moving forward, I think it’s something that we’ll continue to do more and more at TEES.”

Texas A&M graduate students Zheren Zhou, Ping-Chun Hsieh, Viswam Nathan, Serdar Coskun and Xi Liu.



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