University of Kansas professor Brian McClendon, a former vice president with Google who led the unit building Google Maps, told area high school students Monday that the day will come when self-driving vehicles will be the only cars and trucks on the road – but that’s probably at least 30 years away. Meanwhile, major companies are perfecting the technology. In Chandler, Arizona, Waymo driverless robo-taxis are available for public use.
McClendon was the keynote speaker for Jack Kilby Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Day at Barton Community College. He was unable to attend in person but spoke to hundreds of students and answered some of their questions via a video connection to Barton’s Fine Arts Auditorium.
Dean of Academics Brian Howe introduced McClendon, saying, “He’s a mega-mega player in the field of technology.”
The hardest problem for self-driving cars to solve is identifying objects and predicting what might happen next, McClendon said. “You have to be ready for anything if humans are in view.”
To get the software on the road for testing requires a “safety driver” who must stay alert and can take control of the car at any time. In early road tests, safety drivers took control of the vehicle every half mile; now it’s every 30,000 miles. Waymo also travels billions of miles on simulators and in its Arizona territory – where every inch of the roads have been mapped – vehicles have been operating without safety drivers for over a year.
The first question from students was about self-driving vehicles. “How long until everyone has one?”
“Waymo has solved self-driving in the city,” McClendon said, noting auto manufacturers are testing other vehicles. Waymo vehicles are now running in San Francisco.
“You will see a service in Wichita and Kansas City within three to four years,” he predicted. Individuals might be able to buy a self-driving car in 10 years “or maybe a bit more, or it may just be a service.”
As for autopilot cars already available from Tesla and other manufacturers, “you need to be the safety driver at all times.”
Jack Kilby STEM DAY
Barton biology instructor Charlotte Cates said more than 500 area high school students were signed up to attend Barton’s 17th annual Jack Kilby STEM Day (JKSD), although two high schools had to cancel. Pawnee Heights High School in Rozel and Claflin High School both canceled classes and started an early Thanksgiving break due to COVID-19 concerns.
JKSD is designed to increase student interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) majors and careers by providing opportunities for high school students to participate in breakout sessions led by STEM professionals. Hands-on activities and programs related to each presenter’s field give students a chance to learn more about various careers. Each student attended two breakout sessions.
In the breakout “STEM on Stage: How Theatre Studies Enhance Your Learning,” Director of Theatre Activities Miller James, Technical Director Leon Sobba and Lighting Designer Jacob Disque talked about the technical side of theater. Whether it’s creating a set or lighting the stage, James said, “each thing that they do has a job associated with it. We use math and geometry every single day.”
Other fields represented included agriculture, medical research and other aspects of health care, crime scene investigation, chemistry, digital media and photography.
Breakout sessions were led by Barton Community College faculty and staff; instructors from Fort Hays State University and Kansas State University; and outside experts such as Roy Moye III from Spirit AeroSystems, Ashley Burdick from the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, Mandy Kern from the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, and Donna Krug from the Cottonwood Extension District. There was also a Math Bowl.