Making Autonomous Transportation a Reality

Roboticists are playing a key role in transforming the transportation industry into a field filled with autonomous vehicles. 

Passengers arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport can now ride in a fully autonomous car from the airport to downtown Phoenix in a driverless car. Waymo deployed its Waymo One ride-hailing service in Phoenix in late 2022, and the company has also expanded its reach to all of San Francisco. 

Waymo's presence in Phoenix and San Francisco is just one example of the growing driverless car industry. Projections of how much the autonomous transportation market will increase in the coming years vary, but the constant is that all projections see an enormous uptick. Strategic Market Research predicted the global autonomous car market size would increase from $25.1 billion in 2021 to $196.9 billion in 2030. Allied Market Research reported the global autonomous vehicle market was worth $76.1 billion in 2020 and forecast it would balloon to $2.1 trillion by 2030. 

It is because of the current and predicted future growth of the industry that Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program highlighted transportation as an industry that will continue to rely on the skills and knowledge developed by MSR students.  

"Autonomous transportation is here, and the technology is constantly advancing," MSR co-director Matthew Elwin said. "The industry is extremely interesting for roboticists in part because of its cutting-edge nature, but also because of how it combines many robotics-related technologies." 

Elwin is not surprised so many MSR alumni have found their way into the booming industry: 

  • Nate Kaiser (MSR '17) is a robotic software development engineer at Zoox, a subsidiary of Amazon that is developing a robotaxi that does not utilize a steering wheel, gas, or brake pedals 
  • Rikki Valverde (MSR '16) is a senior software engineer at Torc Robotics after working as a senior engineer in the autonomous driving group at Daimler Trucks North America, both of which focus on self-driving truck technology. 
  • Yuchen Wang (MSR '19) is a senior software engineer at Plus, an autonomous truck company 

And the list goes on.  

It takes an array of skills to thrive in the industry: roboticists need to know about navigation, machine learning, and computer vision. Those skills and more are all honed in MSR, preparing students to move the field forward and help shape its future. 

"I believe autonomy in general, not just autonomous vehicles, will be one of the most impactful technologies of the century, freeing people from mundane or dangerous tasks, and instead allowing us to spend our time how we want," said Kaiser, who has worked at Zoox since 2018. "Autonomous vehicles are the first big step forward for this space, and I'm excited to be a part of something I see as so obviously beneficial." 

Public opinion about driverless cars remains hesitant. In 2022, the Pew Research Center found  Americans are more likely to say the widespread use of driverless cars would be bad rather than good for society. The same study found a majority of Americans would not want to ride in a driverless passenger vehicle if given the chance.  

Valverde is surprised by the skepticism.  

"Autonomous vehicles never get drowsy or distracted, they have better night vision, and they benefit from the analysis and planning of teams of engineers instead of relying on one human in a possible moment of stress," Valverde said. 

Safety questions will continue to face the industry, particularly as technical advances allow for vehicles to become even more autonomous in the coming years. It's a challenging industry to work in, Elwin said, but it's always one with incredible opportunity. 

"Roboticists are taking autonomous transportation from a dream to a reality," Elwin said. "The field can be stressful, particularly since so much of a focus is placed on safety — and rightfully so — but it also is an exciting area with a high demand for robotics engineers.” 

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