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MIT Technology Review

EmTech Digital: Two Perspectives on How Mobility Might Be Changing

Two experts with different backgrounds and focus discuss how technology is changing transportation.

Two experts on the technology of transportation took the EmTech stage today and outlined two very different visions for the role of technology in the field.

Venkatesh Prasad

Representing the traditional car manufacturers was Venkatesh Prasad, group and senior technical leader, Ford Research and Innovation. Prasad made the case that sensors on “analog” elements of cars such as windshield wipers and gear shifts are potential sources of data that could fuel important new applications and insights.

With some smart programming, a wiper, for example, can be repurposed into a precise tool for tracking weather patterns, he said.

Noting that drivers can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 25 percent by anticipating delays ahead of them, Prasad argued that significant improvements can be made today using things already on cars through open data platforms like Ford’s Open XC. “You don’t need new hardware. It doesn’t require new capital. You don’t need to be a giant centrally funded institution to do this,” said Prasad.

A more wholesale reimagining of what driving may become came from Karl Iagnemma, principal research scientist at MIT and CEO and cofounder of nuTonomy. Iagnemma’s solution to aiding traffic congestion is autonomous cars that will act as a “copilot” to human drivers. This technology could be an aid that might improve driving, ideally without removing all the fun of it.

Karl Iagnemma

Iagnemma imagines a future in which we still get from point A to B in something that looks like a car but in a way that would not be familiar to any of us as driving.

Getting to such a world requires marrying two very different styles of driving. An automated vehicle is programmed to find a single optimal path to its destination. People, on the other hand, evaluate constantly, making navigation decisions based on several factors.

“Humans are good at making decisions; automation is good at repetitive tasks,” he said. To engineers, “humans look like a big unmodeled distraction to the system.”

In a nod to the impact such technology-driven visions of transportation are having on his industry, Prasad acknowledged that despite Ford’s 111-year history, the biggest changes are happening outside of companies like his. “The convergence of mobility, autonomy, and connectivity is happening at a high speed, and doesn’t place the traditional carmakers at the center of that,” he said.

The EmTech Digital conference continues tomorrow with sessions on privacy and security, augmented reality, and government in a digital age.