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How Soon Is Our Driverless Future?

How Soon Is Our Driverless Future?

By Sam Scott ’96

Photography by Cody Pickens
“This is the time that self-driving cars will actually happen,” says Carol Reiley ’04. “This generation.” 

Reiley may play a central role in the revolution. In 2015 she co-founded Drive.AI, an emerging force in automated driving. “We've been trying to build self-driving cars since the 1920s,” she notes. “However, it's never been success. With the breakthrough of AI this generation, this is the time that self-driving cars will actually happen. And it's because solving self-driving technology needs to be software driven.”

You can actually trace this road—and her focus on software—back to her teenage years, when she was a volunteer at her local hospital. 

She had started candy striping to see if she should pursue a career as a physician. Instead, her imagination was captured by exposure to a fairly mundane medical device—the pacemaker. Doctors, she could see, had to hustle to help one person at a time. But whoever designed the pacemaker had touched millions of lives. The moment provided an early crystalization of what has become a personal mantra: the power of engineering to help people at scale.

The experience shaped her time at Santa Clara, where she majored in computer engineering. She also threw herself into four years of research in the robotics lab of Professor of Engineering Christopher Kitts.

That led to doctoral work in artificial intelligence (AI) at Johns Hopkins and to developing robotic surgical tools capable of entering the body with no invasive incisions. “It was coming full circle,” she says. “It was tremendously rewarding.”

So why did she leave it to found Drive.AI? She saw the chance to test her entrepreneurial skills against an even bigger problem. “Humans are just terrible drivers,” she says.

She’s not being flip. Each year some 40,000 people die on American roads, many in accidents caused by mistakes AI could avoid. “It's the most impactful problem I can be working on today to prevent deaths,” she says. “A physician saves one life at a time. With a technology breakthrough, we can save millions.”

Though she acknowledges that driverless cars will not instantaneously transform the landscape. Machines will be better drivers in that they pay attention all the time, she says. But there will be challenges—including how humans and AI interact. And there are laws and regulations to be hammered out.

Drive.AI is backed by $77 million in funding, with partners including the ride-share company Lyft. To “see” the world, Drive.AI’s hardware uses radar, cameras, lasers, and deep-learning algorithms to learn from and act on that information. In February 2017, the company released video of its technology in action navigating Bay Area streets at night, in the rain and in traffic—all without a hitch, or a human touch.

There are challenges to bringing such technology fully into the wild, she says, many of them related to the unpredictability of people, but Reiley is sure that the driverless future is just around the corner.

“We have the potential to bring self-driving cars closer to reality,” she says—and she cites the fact that 1.3 million people died from car accidents in 2016. “The sooner that we do that, that’s thousands of lives every day worldwide we can save.”

Reiley is now a board member of Drive.AI and serves as an advisor. And expect more big things to come.

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