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14 Apr 2016
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Our urban environment and the complex web it weaves affects everything from the way we get from here to there, to accessing public services, and the health of our businesses and economy. Engineers crafting urban environment and the role they play in advancing our infrastructure to improve our quality of life cannot be understated.
What is even more complex are the myriad of people that use the transportation and public projects we deliver. The importance of our infrastructure is illustrated by the variety of individuals that descend on Austin each year at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) series.
SXSW began as a music festival thirty years ago, but has quickly evolved into the modern day world’s fair. It has now morphed into a collaborative event with business cards in constant rotation and the smell of start-up success in the air. Event-goers can be seen nose-down in their mobile devices, rushing from session to session—many searching for the nearest electrical outlet.
One of the many autonomous vehicle track displays at SXSW
I cannot think of any other event where I can quickly transition from hearing the president of the United States acting as a recruiter to advance the federal government’s technology pursuits, to seeing the Winklevoss twins (The Social Network, anyone?) self-promote their new bitcoin platform. Then follow that with an impromptu brainstorming session with a director of marketing from Lyft on how to broaden their customer base against rival Uber, and a 15-minute break with the new Thync technology to refresh and relax. Top that off with an entrepreneur discussing the challenge of eliminating motion sickness from virtual reality devices, and how the same concepts were used in ensuring passengers had a smooth ride in self-driving cars. This is assuredly the place to be to hear the world’s premier thought and experience the broad spectrum of current technologies primed to disrupt our society.
For me, the benefit of this type of event was not only to see the robust connected and autonomous vehicle track, but more so, the opportunity to hear from the people within the autonomous vehicle industry who are both within and outside of the engineering realm. People like the German designers working on the Mercedes F 015 concept car, who mapped visuals of what Berlin’s landscape looked like 2,000 years ago to 360 degree screens covering the car’s interior. They then discussed how this could enable vehicles to interact with its passengers (and pedestrians too!) to curate a personalized atmosphere unlike anything we have ever seen.
Interior view of the Mercedes Benz F 015
Most engineers consulting public entities on connected and autonomous vehicles might glance over the vehicle design aspects which are a component of crafting this new form of commuting and mobility. And while vehicle aesthetics and interiors may not directly correlate to concepts critical in transportation planning, it is important for engineers to understand the challenges, approaches, and benefits in developing new customer experiences that change the way people feel about transportation.
Similar challenges and “out-of-the-box” thinking have led innovators to create micro-apartments that can be located in the unused parking spaces or vacant garages that will be left behind when autonomous vehicles reduce the need for them. I was also inspired by listening to the mobility challenges of our aging populations and how young entrepreneurs are developing mobile applications to help them maintain their freedom and access to transportation despite being unable to drive themselves.
Our world and the complex environment we live in calls for collaboration like never before. This sentiment was reiterated during Secretary Foxx’s conversation with the mayors whose cities were named finalists in the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge. This event consisted of each mayor lobbying for their respective city and the benefits of having smart technology integrated within the transportation system.
My colleague Stephen Bourne also discussed the critical need for collaboration and innovation in his article on how cities can respond to climate change. He rightly conveys the need to plan our urban environments holistically in order to maintain cities that can collectively combat our rising tides.
As these challenges increase through climate change and growing urban populations, the new generation of engineers must rise to the occasion—gathering global perspectives, diverse collaborations, and new approaches to bring the benefits of technology home. I left the event inspired, excited, and feeling honored to work in the engineering industry, where today we truly have the opportunity to change the world for the better.
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