Driverless Cars? Far Sooner Than You Think, Experts Will Say at Panel Today

Caltech panel will explore autonomous vehicles Wednesday evening

Published : Tuesday, April 18, 2017 | 11:19 AM

Mory Gharib, at left, and Richard Murray

It’s every urban planner’s dream—driverless, synchronized cars moving smoothly and seamlessly through Southern California traffic. Every car sensing the others, moving with the flow, speeding up here, slowing down there, as you enjoy the ride.

According to forecasts from a leading source of information on the global automotive industry, more than 20 million autonomous vehicles will take to the road over the next 20 years.

Wednesday, a panel of experts, assembled by Caltech Associates — a 91 year-old group of local community supporters, Caltech alumni, and friends — will meet at the Lees-Kubota Lecture Hall, in the Guggenheim Building on the Caltech campus, to discuss a revolutionary new technology that could literally transform the daily lives of millions of Americans perhaps far sooner than you think.

Will you even be driving your next car? It may be too early, but with the staggering pace of developing technology in the world today, the idea may not be too far-fetched.

According to The Society of Automotive Engineers, there are six levels of driving automation for industry and consumers to understand—three kinds of monitored driving and three kinds of non-monitored driving—which ranges from “Driver is continuously exercising longitudinal and lateral control” to “System can automatically cope with all situations during the journey. No driver required.” And of course, every variation of those two extremes.

“Driverless cars are something that interests us, both because of the societal impact, as well as the technological impact,” said Mory Gharib, the seventh director of the Caltech Graduate Aerospace Laboratories, and director of the Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies. Gahrib has received over 90 U.S. patents in flow imaging, biomedical devices, and imaging technology in general and has received multiple prizes from NASA recognizing his contributions to advanced laser imaging and nanotechnology, is hosting the event on behalf of Caltech Associates.

So he knows what he is talking about, and when asked about how close we actually are to a driverless car world, Gharib says, “Surprisingly, we are very close. Very close. By 2020 there will be a huge leap in driverless cars. The technology has been developed, especially the hardware. The software part is in good shape, too.”

But that is also the challenge, he says. “Software will be the brains of the systems, and that is where most of the issues will materialize.”

Gharib notes that the current stock of driverless cars, especially Google cars, are wonders of technology. “They have every kind of sensor you can imagine,” he says, “from RF sensors to radar, and more, but at the end of the day, they will need to rely on road sensors. (The cars) are supposed to be autonomous, but even autonomous systems can benefit when you have outside help.”

These days, Gharib continued, few US roads, if any, have the necessary sensors needed for autonomous cars, so the cars have to have all of the technology contained within themselves.

But eventually, roads and autonomous cars will work in tandem. “We’ll have satellites in the skies and sensors in the road to give us all this information, like road conditions and obstacles,” explained Gharib.

Yet there is a danger in relying solely on GPS, says Gharib, who says the cars should ideally be able to see everything themselves, without relying on help from the heavens. Cars will use their onboard technology to constantly adapt to road conditions.

And road traffic will only get thicker.

“Imagine if we had all these cars on the road today,” Gharib posited. “Nobody would drive, and we would have so many more cars on the road,” And yet at the same time, the cars would all have sensors. These are all things that need to be tested. It’s a very open area of research right now. ”

Joining Gharib on the panel is a sparkling array of intellectual and academic firepower.

Caltech professor Richard Murray explores feedback and control in networked systems, with applications in biology and autonomy. His current projects include design of highly resilient architectures for autonomous systems, analysis and design of biomolecular feedback circuits, and synthesis of discrete decision-making protocols for reactive systems. He was the Caltech Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) team’s three-time leader of driverless vehicles.

Award-winning reporter, editor, and columnist Paul Lienert has covered the global auto industry, contributing news and feature stories to every major U.S. auto magazine. Over the past four decades, his articles have appeared in such publications as TIME, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. His current focus is on the future of transportation, including electrification, connectivity, and autonomous driving. He is past president of the Society of Automotive Analysts and co-founder of the Automotive Press Association.

Evangelos Simoudis is a recognized expert on big data strategies and corporate innovation, and author of “The Big Data Opportunity in Our Driverless Future.” He has worked in Silicon Valley for over 25 years as a venture investor, entrepreneur, and corporate executive. Simoudis is the co-founder and Managing Director of Synapse Partners, a venture firm that invests in early-stage startups developing big data applications, and is an advisor to global corporations on big data strategies and startup-driven innovation.

Caltech Associates Panel: “The Future of Driverless Cars” Wednesday, April 19, 2017 6:00 p.m. at The Athenaeum. Tickets are $80 per person for members, $95 per person for non-members. To purchase tickets online, go to, email Ruby Rico at or contact (626) 395-6392.



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