Emerging Careers – Autonomous Vehicle Development, Deployment, and Maintenance

This is the first article in a three-part series, “Transformational Technologies and Emerging Careers in Transportation.”

The futuristic technology of driverless vehicles now seems to be on the precipice of a widespread reality. News items on projects around the world pop up daily and the recent CES consumer technology show in Las Vegas showcased half a dozen cars with autonomous capabilities. According to journalist, Samara Lynn, in an article on CES for Black Enterprise, “If there was one, star attraction at CES this year, arguably it was vehicles. Vendors, including Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Nissan gave CES attendees a look into the cars of the very near future.”

Autonomous vehicles capture the imagination and young people setting out on their career paths and selecting their post-high school educational route have been hearing the rumblings of this phenomenon for their entire lives. Today, those wishing to get into this field have a variety of opportunities to get involved.

Working toward the goal of making autonomous vehicles a reality is the Wisconsin Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This group is managed by Peter Rafferty, an engineer with a masters in Transportation Engineering, with other graduate work in planning and economics.

When asked how students can break into the field and work with autonomous vehicles, Rafferty points out that there are several fields that contribute to this discipline. Traditionally, transportation has been largely composed of Civil Engineers and Transportation Planners.

“There is always going to be a need for the infrastructure side, like Civil Engineering,” said Rafferty. “But, when it comes to traffic control, that’s becoming increasingly technical. Automated and connected vehicle growth in those areas is very multidisciplinary,” said Rafferty.

Rafferty points out that experience with database systems was helpful for his career. While he is not a computer programmer or a software engineer, just being able to work with data has been beneficial to him.
“I say to students, ‘Make sure you’re getting some exposure to basic scripting and working with big data,’” said Rafferty.

People entering this field today come from a variety of backgrounds including electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

Steve Herro, Project Manager of the Al Hurvis-Peak Transportation Center at the Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin, points out that people beginning their training as automotive technicians today will be working on cars with the types of technologies that come with autonomous vehicles. As examples, many of today’s newer vehicles come equipped with automatic emergency breaking, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and self-parking systems, all of which are components of autonomous vehicles.

However, not all automotive technicians will be working with driverless cars in the next five years or even in the next decade. “You have to be a little careful luring people into the field with autonomous vehicles,” said Herro, pointing out that only a small percentage of vehicles on the road will be driverless for some time. “Only a master technician will be able to touch any of those cars,” he said.

As a manager, Rafferty has not had to know all the technical details of all these varied fields, but he has had to develop an understanding of the concepts from them and “learn the lingo.” He has augmented his knowledge with some online courses. There are materials relevant to this field on online educational resources, such as Coursera and Udacity. Rafferty suggests taking courses on computer science, digital security, machine learning, sensor data, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

“If I were 25 years younger and going into college, I would go to one of these online resources,” he said.

His background as a planner has also been helpful. From this, he is able to understand the human experience with transportation and mobility. Rafferty thinks about autonomous vehicles more broadly than just automating a piece of hardware.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to work with autonomous vehicles here at the university. This is not something I could have done as a consultant.”