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At UIC, Students Study ‘Unstoppable’ Technology Of Self-Driving Cars

The course is the first in the Chicago area where students study transportation planning, control systems and the ethics of self-driving cars.

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Students at the University of Illinois at Chicago watch small autonomous robot cars make their way around a road maze while also watching how the self-driving cars recognize their surroundings on a laptop. It’s a class project that’s part of a pilot class on self-driving cars introduced this semester.

Kate McGee

In the basement of a warehouse-like building, about two dozen students at the University of Illinois at Chicago are huddled around a large black mat. They’re watching a half-dozen toy-sized robots with small yellow wheels weave around white and yellow lines, designed to look like a road.

The students watch how well their robot cars turn and stay between the lines. If they need to make changes, they don’t touch the car. Instead, they use laptops to program the adjustments.


This project is part of a new class at UIC that allows 60 graduate students to study the future of transportation: self-driving cars.

The engineering school is piloting the class, which touches on everything in this budding industry from computer science and transportation planning to the ethical implications of autonomous vehicles.

“I think they’re an inevitability,” said student Peter Lauer. “So I think it’s important to understand what’s going to happen. I had a professor my first semester here say, ‘If you see a new technology on the horizon, don’t be one of the naysayers because then you won’t get to be part of the discussion later on.’”

This new course is a collaborative effort by 15 professors from different departments, including computer science, engineering, transportation and even philosophy. It’s one of the first multidisciplinary courses in this subject at a university in the Chicago area.

“Autonomous vehicles will be here,” said lead instructor Ugo Buy. “They are unstoppable. [But] there are incredible challenges and great dangers also.” He says this course allows students to think about these issues now so they’re a step ahead when they enter their first job.

When the course was announced, the lead professors had to create a lottery because there was such large demand. Students say they usually learn about fields, like control systems and computer vision, in separate courses.

“It’s only after we graduate, if we are lucky enough to get in [an] autonomous vehicle company, [that] we get to integrate all the knowledge we have and then work on it,” said Durga Kumari. “But, right now, if you see the coursework of this subject, it has everything — control systems, computer vision — all that which is required for working on it.”

There’s a section on transportation planning, too, since self-driving cars will change congestion and traffic flow.

But many students found the ethics lesson most interesting. Students discussed how companies that build self-driving cars should program them to make decisions, especially in emergency or life-threatening situations. They used a common philosophical question called the trolley problem, which asks: Do you kill one person to save five people?

“Say you have an autonomous vehicle and there’s a branching decision where it can either potentially kill five people or potentially kill one person — what do you tell the car to do in what situation?” Lauer said. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, he said, there are many questions to consider: Are the five people in the car? Is there one person in the car? Who is on the road? Who has a right to be on the road?

“My view was that, you know, if the brakes fail, no matter what happens, the pedestrian cannot be put at risk,” said Shireen Damle, who is working on a master’s in mechanical engineering. She says not everyone in the class agreed.

“A couple of people gave an explanation that if you put the passenger at risk, how will the car sell?” she said.

For one assignment, students even had to write letters to the hypothetical family of a person killed by an autonomous vehicle. In that letter, they had to justify why they programmed the autonomous vehicle to act that way.

This week, students are learning about security issues around autonomous vehicles. There is always a concern about hacking in this kind of field. They’ll finish the course exploring consumer adoption of self-driving cars and public policy.

Professors say they hope students continue to study these issues — and more — as the technology develops. Their long-term goal is to create an autonomous vehicle concentration in UIC’s engineering department and a research center to study self- driving cars as they become more common.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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