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The New Ned Ludd: Make Tufts a Driverless Campus

Columns | February 21, 2017

College campuses have long been host to social movements, multi-disciplinary thinking, and innovation. Facebook, the seatbelt, beer pong, and the Reach Toothbrush (1976, designed by Tufts Professor Percy Hill) give but a small sense of the kind of collegiate-born innovations that have significantly impacted and improved human life well beyond the iron gates of academia.

One challenge that arises with product development on campuses is that they often emerge from relatively siloed sub-communities, research labs or dorm rooms. Campus innovators are often challenged to protect their early-stage intellectual property. In addition, early product development can require significant technical knowledge. As a consequence, the development process fails to bring together various disciplines and personalities.

The opportunity now emerges from the fact that so many nascent technologies are being released in a testable state. With many still lacking a regulatory structure, their creators are avidly searching for new applications, feedback, and contributions. This could possibly lead to cause for concern or, conversely, we could adopt the mindset that chaos breeds opportunity. As a university, we should be considering how we can attract these technologies to our campus so that our students can be a part of their development as they take on a firmer and more viable shape.

One technological innovation that I am particularly drawn to in this regard is driverless cars. The technology has proven operable but imperfect. A recent Wired Magazine insider-look colored an experience of being driven around Pittsburgh in an Uber prototype: “As we’re sitting in traffic on a bridge, with cars approaching in the other direction, the car begins slowly turning the steering wheel to the left and edging out into the oncoming lane. ‘Grab the wheel!’ the engineer shouts.” Furthermore, the regulatory environment surrounding the driverless concept is still loose and federal policymaking is often unviable without examples of successful case studies.

Tufts, a private institution that has tremendous technical and non-technical expertise as well as an incredibly civically-minded student body, has an emerging mobility challenge with its dynamic physical environment. As our campus expands, the mobility needs of our students, staff, and faculty are not being met by school-provided transit which is forcing many members of our community to have their own cars—a costly trend that is eating up valuable parking space and only increases our physical and environmental footprint.

Within the next two years, I propose that our university builds a partnership with a global driverless car company such as Uber, Tesla, MobilEye, or Google. There is also a significant number of legitimate smaller-scale driverless companies that are making waves such as Palo Alto-based startup Varden Labs. The goal is to ultimately make Tufts a “Driverless Campus.” I propose the following terms for these potential partnerships:

  1. Road Access: The cars would be free to move on the internal campus portions of Professors Row, Talbot Avenue, Packard Avenue, Capen Street, and North Hill Road.
  2. Usage: Members of the Tufts community would have access to these vehicles 24 hours a day, assuming they are in service.
  3. Labs, Expertise Sharing: Tufts students would be able to monitor and give feedback on the application of the technology on our campus. Students would offer a critical insight into how these products could improve to better fit their environment.
  4. Multidisciplinary Coursework: A new course would be offered to all students interested in the crossroads of physical product development, engineering, public policy, ethics, and design. This course would be taught by Tufts professors and industry practitioners.

Similar practices have received significant attention in the last year at larger West Coast universities. Auro Robotics is currently testing their driverless shuttle system at several universities, including Santa Clara University, and Varden Labs has followed the approach of targeting the mobility gaps that many students face at larger campuses. I am certain that in the coming years, these early examples will become blueprints once their challenges and responses have been solved and codified.

What particularly excites me about this concept is the fact that our entire university could contribute our shared capacity to shaping a technology that will undoubtedly have global impact within the decade. We are uniquely positioned as a midsized private university with a progressive campus culture, deep expertise and resources, and proximity to an exploding innovation hub in Boston. We can contribute and be leaders in this movement that will reimagine our expectations of mobility and safety across campuses and beyond.