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Autonomous Vehicles, Now and Later

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Society is headed toward more driverless cars, self-driving cars, shared cars, connected fleets, and all kinds of autonomous vehicles (AVs). How will engineers of tomorrow deal with this technology? Dr. Kara Kockelman, Professor of Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, talks about her research in this area and current advances in the field. She discusses driver psychology, effects of AVs on the environment, the importance of statistics and computer science in her work, the difference between cars in Texas and California, and much more.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Pius Wong  0:00 

This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, season three.


Pius Wong  0:10 

Where are we today with the technology of self driving cars, driverless cars, and autonomous vehicles in general? Where will we be in the near future, when young students today grow up to work as engineers in this field? I'm Pius Wong. Recently I had a chance to ask these questions to Professor Kara Kockelman. She's an expert on these issues who teaches and does research with the Civil Engineering Department of the University of Texas at Austin. Listen in, next.


Pius Wong  0:45 

Thank you, Dr. Kockelman, or Kara Kockelman. You are Professor of Civil Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. Can you briefly explain to anyone who might not know your work what it is you're doing and what you're interested in?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  0:58 

Sure. So I was very lucky that in college I was kind of turned on to the idea of transportation engineering. I was in the Department of Civil Engineering, really had no idea what I wanted to do. But I always wanted to help people. So I was in the Peace Corps, for example, always had done a lot of public service in high school. And transportation just seemed like a real natural fit. I chose engineering in part because, well, actually, primarily because it is about helping others, in a way. It's very public decision making, although structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, construction, that's always very private-side, but not so much like the other engineering fields. So civil really attracts a lot of people who care about our communities. And I didn't know what discipline within civil until late in my undergraduate career, and then transportation opens the doors to all sorts of topics. I mean, it's an incredibly wide field, so you can never get bored. And that's why I do work in a lot of different areas, because I'm constantly looking for ways to make our communities better. So it could be on the freight side, it could be on the transit side, it could be on the biking side. Usually, though, since most Americans are so dependent on the automobile, it's very often on the automobile side. So we're looking at ways to make things better for communities.


Pius Wong  2:09 

Yeah, actually coming on that, I know that here in Texas, we really depend on our vehicles. And I saw that you spent a lot of time in California. I'm wondering if you noticed any cultural differences in how we view cars across the country.


Dr. Kara Kockelman  2:22 

Well, especially the type of cars. So I grew up in Palo Alto. I was very fortunate. This is well before there was a tech boom and everything, but it just had good schools, and so good public schools. So that's why my parents paid extra to have a house there. And the houses were very affordable back then. And we were able to bike everywhere, and we had sidewalks everywhere. As soon as you move to Texas, that kind of disappears. And so I had to work really hard to find a location for my husband, and then eventually our children, that would allow me to take the bus to work every day without a long walk, either, and that would allow us to walk to shopping, so we can buy food, we can go to the post office. Unfortunately, somebody inherited our local shopping center. We have a couple, and she got rid of anything selling any kind of animal products. So we lost all our restaurants, which was a real bummer. But fortunately, we still have a food store at the other shopping center. And you know, we have a lot of things or parks that we can walk to and not too many sidewalks, and the biking is great if you stay kind of in the neighborhood. It'd be hard, a little bit hard to bike to work. So that's kind of what I noticed immediately. But then of course, you notice a very high percentage of pickup trucks and big SUVs. So unfortunately, the Texas station wagon has always been that Chevrolet Suburban. It started here, and it's still a huge phenomenon. And that thing is so aggressive in crashes. It destroyed my hybrid electric vehicle, actually, and did nothing to the suburban last year. So it's incredibly aggressive. Very fuel inefficient vehicle. Can't see around it, causes lots of crashes. Doesn't have very high insurance claims, however, because everybody gets banged up on them, and not too much happens to the tank. So you see that right away that they drive a lot of tanks here. If you go to California, oh my goodness, the electric vehicles are flourishing. There's plugins all over the place and really smart, progressive policy taking place in that state.


Pius Wong  4:23 

Interesting that you mentioned all that, because I noticed in research, you not only study things like safety, and fuel efficiency, and the environment, but you also study the perceptions of people, like the psychology, I guess, of what people want to buy and how they want to use their cars. I didn't know that was a big deal in civil engineering. How did you know to study all these different things? Or why did all of these topics fall in your lap like that?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  4:48 

In graduate school I was really fortunate that my professors kept saying, Kara, you really should take some more statistics, because I had just had one class as a sophomore undergrad. Totally lost on me, you know. I got an A, but I had no idea what we were doing. And thank goodness, I finally succumbed to their suggestions in graduate school. Had a great professor that time around and got to see how data analysis is incredibly useful. Most important tool I've ever learned. And I'm so glad to see that our educators are teaching our kids in third grade and fourth grade and fifth grade again and again about the mean and the mode and the median. And then eventually, my kids are going to get standard deviation. They're doing scatterplots. They don't know what an R-squared is yet, but I mean, it's fantastic. So thank you to all of those educators that made that decision to start introducing statistics young, because we didn't get it until college, and even then it was completely lost on us. And it's a very complex topic, but it's so useful. So sometimes -- Well, to predict the future of our cities, to help make policy decisions now and investments now that will pay off long-term, we have to forecast. So we have to predict behavior. So we have to understand behaviors. And most of those behaviors have not been chronicled before. There's no good data sets out there. So I have to get that data on my own with my students. And we're very lucky now that there are professional survey firms that have these big panels of Americans that we can quickly tap into a lot of Americans across a variety of demographics and get those answers to help us better predict what people are going to do if we change things.


Pius Wong  6:22 

It's a coordinated effort. It's not just you alone doing something.


Dr. Kara Kockelman  6:26 

No, the students are critical. Oh my gosh, they magnify me so much. It's fantastic. And I learned so much through my students, my grad students, undergrads -- little bit difficult, but yeah, I still learn stuff through them. I mean, every one of them. Yeah. All the students in this building. Absolutely. They're also incredibly helpful, like the woman outside right now. She's an undergrad in computer science, and she's putting together right now my holiday card, but I mean, she's doing it way better than I could do it. And we see this all the time. Our students all have special skills, even the undergraduate level, that they bring to things that we need to get done. And they help each other, they edit each other's work. And you know, they make suggestions. Last night, we had presentations on transportation, economic topics for my graduate course, and questions from the group all sorts of great ideas, salient questions being made. And so it's a real community of learners here. And that includes me. I learned almost as much as my students do, I'd say each year.


Pius Wong  7:26 

It means you can't stop learning as an engineer,


Dr. Kara Kockelman  7:28 

As a professor -- That's one of the very attractive things about being a professor, is that you're kind of at the cutting edge, you're constantly finding new information. And that might be through firsthand data acquisition, or it might be through reading somebody else's paper, or having your student try something new.


Pius Wong  7:43 

So it's true that at least in this field of autonomous vehicles, we don't just need a computer scientist, which is what we hear, I think, in the media. We need civil engineers, electrical engineers, other engineers. What types of people work in autonomous vehicles?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  7:59 

Wow. Well, electrical engineers are incredibly important. And the design of a lot of those components are the programmers, of course. And then the mechanical engineers, although electric vehicles are a much simpler technology, so to the extent they're on that platform, you know, the ME's are not as important in some ways, but the design of that vehicle body. And then of course there's communications technology. So you've got a lot of electrical engineers, again. There are chemical engineers, if there's any batteries, of course, there are small batteries, and hopefully large batteries so we can tap more renewable fuel sources in our power generation. So those are all incredibly important, but you also have people designing for the human. So how's the human going to interact with that vehicle? So they'll bring in psychologists, of course, and they'll bring in environmental engineers, and of course civil engineers, for some of the land use decisions and some of the investments on the design side for the infrastructure, the public infrastructure.


Pius Wong  8:55 

Yeah, and so before we get too deep into the autonomous vehicles talk, I noticed in your research, you use a lot of different terms to talk about similar things. And I wanted to help clear that up to anyone who might not know. I've heard the phrase autonomous vehicle, driverless car, electric vehicle, connected vehicle, shared vehicle. What are all the different terms out there that people might be interested in?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  9:19 

Well, the most confusing acronym maybe that we use a lot here in my research group is SAEV. And so that's a shared autonomous electric vehicle. And of course, when we use the word autonomous, we don't mean that this car is making a bunch of decisions on its own and going to the beach on Fridays, because it wants to, it's still at the beck and call of the human, and the only decisions it's making are en route to avoid crashes and avoid red lights and things like that. So it's just keeping us safe and getting us to our destinations. It's not doing anything on its own. And so some people prefer the term driverless. And then of course, some people prefer self-driving, but there is a distinction that. So driverless versus self-driving is nuanced. And my colleague at Princeton uses that distinction because he likes to say that a driverless vehicle really doesn't need a human inside it from start to finish. It's able to handle the trip, whereas self-driving may only be on the freeway. So the human's got to stay alert and get the vehicle to a safe route. And then the vehicle can take over for most of the route. So it doesn't guarantee that it is driverless. And I don't really make that distinction. I think the A is going to be common. I think that's going to be the natural way we speak about these vehicles. So I just say autonomous even though some people feel that means a lot more decision-making on the part of the device. Of course, you guys all know what electric means. But there are distinctions there, too. Like a hybrid electric doesn't plug in, whereas a plug-in hybrid electric does plug in, but it also has gasoline on board, so you can go back and forth and get really long range on that vehicle. So hopefully most of your daily commuting is all electric. Pretty much electric. It really depends on how the manufacturer has coded that drive-train to tap the battery versus the fuel tank. And then of course, there's battery-only electric vehicles. So we call those BEVs. And you know, some people just call them EVs. But that gets pretty confusing for some of us. So I prefer to call them BEVs. There's connectivity, which I think is really going to be important for a lot of the coordinated conversations that go on between vehicles and congested conditions and in potential conflicts. So that communication, it's just simple radio communication, was the plan. So under the Obama administration, and under our National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, for many years, they were planning to require connectivity using dedicated short range communications on our vehicles by model year 2020. And that didn't happen. We had an election in November. I think if Hillary Clinton had won, it would have been mandated, but now we've got very different people in charge of that agency, and so we're waiting to see, but we think that they're just going to let the manufacturers call the shots. And hopefully the manufacturers will come to some kind of standard and start releasing that, and that you and I will also be able to retrofit our existing vehicles to communicate our position, our direction and our speed at every, I don't know, I think it might be 10 hertz frequency. So every 10th of a second. And others can basically hear us, and if they're driving a semi self-driving vehicle, or a fully self-driving vehicle, that vehicle can react in all sorts of ways. You and I would have to have a cell phone app or something else in the vehicle to tell us, Hey, car coming from the right, slow down. Or, you know, traffic up ahead, and things like that. We would have to hear it audibly.


Pius Wong  12:45 

I heard three different traits, I guess, of these vehicles. One is their power source, if they're electric or partially electric. One is if they're autonomous or not. And one is this connectivity, if they're connected or not, because it sounds like you can have a connected vehicle without it being autonomous, then? Okay. And humans might be in the loop, they might not. There's all these different combinations. Where are we right now with all of this? Like, what's -- I understand that most -- Like, there's more self-driving cars than driverless, then. People are usually in the car, right?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  13:14 

Oh, yeah. I mean, Google -- It's almost mandated in any state that you must have a driver. And so usually they put that person in the front seat. But as I understand it, Google and Waymo didn't want to actually have a steering wheel in there, but it's required by law. So the law was just written at the time where they couldn't even envision a vehicle without such things on our public roadways. So they mentioned, you know, the steering wheel and maybe even a gas pedal and a brake pedal. And so they kind of had to put those in, even though they didn't plan to. And so they've also maybe got somebody who's a licensed driver, that's kind of important in most states' legal discussions, and so we've got drivers in there, but really, they're not needed, and hopefully the states are working to change those laws.


Pius Wong  13:59 

So yeah, before I get into some technical questions, are you involved in making some of those regulatory decisions? Or do you advise people in making those laws?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  14:08 

Yeah, here in Texas, we have big projects with the Texas DOT. So they do have legal counsel, and we are in regular contact with their chief legal counsel. And so we also have an attorney on our team. So we also work with attorneys, and not just engineers and computer scientists, and she's very much engaged in helping advise and keeping track of what other states are doing. Attorneys are definitely involved. So are insurance companies, as you can imagine, and the manufacturers, themselves.


Pius Wong  14:35 

All right. Well, let's talk about some of the technology that we have today, or some of the research questions that you're answering today. Because I know you're answering a lot. What is common right now in terms of driverless cars? Is there anything common? Are we really changing fast?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  14:50 

So they definitely have to have a lot more sensors outside the vehicle to keep track of what's around it, and they have sophisticated mapping software that they're paying attention to, to know exactly where that curve is and where that crosswalk is. So even if they can't see it, they can refer to a map as long as they have good GPS positioning. But of course, GPS can be spoofed. So they've got lots of redundancy on location and position. And so they're checking all sorts of sensors on board the vehicle and outside the vehicle, like the LIDAR, that light detection and ranging, very expensive piece of equipment originally about $100,000. That cost has fallen for, you know, maybe not as highly equipped LIDAR, but they're putting those on top of the vehicle, sometimes at the front of the windshield area, and sometimes on the corners, to do kind of a corner reach for maybe a quarter of the vehicle's periphery. But they've also got lots of radar on the vehicle, and they've got lots of computers. So one of the things that they are worried about is the energy demand of all that computerization, and of course the cargo space that requires. So they're trying to bring that down, but they almost all have that in common. I think Uber was trying to go without LIDAR to keep things less expensive, but, you know, the experts in the industry told me you really need it for rain conditions and things like that. So the cameras just won't do it.


Pius Wong  16:11 

What about outside the car you were talking about? Like, you need some of those sensors outside the car. And in fact, other civil engineers have told me that we're getting to that point where maybe cities are going to want to build things into the roads to help autonomous cars find their way. Where are we with that?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  16:27 

So when I said outside the car, I meant on the outside of the vehicle, but attached to the vehicle, but yes, roadside equipment, too, can be very helpful. So I think some important places for positioning that would be on dangerous curves. And then of course, upstream of intersections, any place you have a lot of conflicts or a lot of crashes, or maybe ice is up, and you need vehicles to relay that information. But maybe the vehicles don't come that often, so they can't relay quickly. So they're relaying to a roadside device waiting for the next vehicle to arrive, maybe a minute or more later, and saying, you know, watch out, here is the experience of the previous vehicle. Looks like they lost control of the right side. So that might be communicated much more simply than I suggested, but it's happening quickly, and vehicles are being told in advance, Oh, a deer was just spotted, you know, or an ocelot here in Texas. We have that endangered animal and many others. So with the cameras and the things onboard these vehicles, I can actually identify a lot of hazards and relay that information, and that can be shared with others. It can even go up into the cloud, of course, and be relayed through its standard sensors. So I could even have my phone telling me, maybe Google Maps or another mapping software would say, deer crossing within the last minute, 100 feet from where you are, something like that, and warning me to slow down.


Pius Wong  17:44 

It makes me think, yeah, we're already on our way towards that, because we have a bunch of apps on our phone which are traveling with our cars. Let's talk about safety. One of the main arguments I've heard for having autonomous cars is that they're supposed to drive better than humans. I see you nodding. That means they are safer right now, it seems like.


Dr. Kara Kockelman  18:04 

I mean, Google's in the lead, I can tell you that definitively. Even a Google vehicle could beat you or me, but they do seem to be driving really responsibly. But I would say that's a very tall order for most manufacturers right now. So they have test vehicles, and they absolutely have a driver in there ready to press the red button or, or take control of that wheel. They don't trust them for certain situations. And humans are not terrible drivers. But of course, we are the major reason behind most crashes, and we just get distracted. For example, in my crash, I thought the red lights on this huge tank in front of me were that it was just slowing down, because that was a common thing on this particular downhill road stretch at night, and it was pretty steep. So I assume that's what he was doing. But he was actually stopping for a small car that was in front of him to turn left. And so if I had known that he was braking that fast, my car would have absolutely braked faster, and automated emergency braking is something we really should be requiring of all manufacturers now at all speeds. So there are things that we absolutely should be doing that any manufacturer can do quite well and that would reduce crashes. But one of the things we do worry about in this industry is that if we make driving a lot easier for some of us, and then those people get into a standard vehicle. So sometimes Google engineers actually get into a standard vehicle after being in one of these vehicles a lot, and they have forgotten how to drive, and it's very scary. They're really reacting too late. They're not anticipating. So you do need to worry about people transitioning between types of vehicles during this transition towards a self-driving fleet.


Pius Wong  19:46 

That's really interesting. It reminds me of the transition between driving stick and manual, and there's that little thing you gotta switch in your head to do that. Is there any preparation for training for people to know how to use a driverless car or autonomous car?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  20:01 

I think if you know how to use a cell phone, you'll be fine in a driverless car.


Pius Wong  20:10 

Now that we made it to the middle of the talk, it's a good time for me to give a big thank you to all the supporters of this show. The regular donors on Patreon make this season possible. And you can donate, too, at patreon.com/pioslabs. Links to the Patreon page and other ways to support the show are in the show notes and on the website, k12engineering.net. Now, back to the talk.


Pius Wong  20:40 

I noticed you do research on energy efficiency in general in transportation, as well as its connection to autonomous vehicles. What do you predict will be the effect on the environment of autonomous vehicles, if you can summarize that at all? What do we know, or what do we think we know?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  20:57 

Well, that's a billion dollar question right there, and we are doing research right now. It can go either way. It really depends on us, on our policy decisions. And so we really have to elect intelligent leaders, you know, people who aren't afraid of science. You can really think on these topics and thoughtfully, because it is complex. I think we're going to make driving easier. So of course, we're going to see more driving. And so that's why I think dynamic ride sharing or DRS is really key. And this is different from car-sharing. Car-sharing means that I give you the car after I'm done with it, or it goes to you to serve you after I've made my trip. Zipcar, Car-To-Go, those are all car-sharing, but the cars can't drive to the next passenger. So that makes it difficult. It's not as popular as it will be when it becomes like a self-driving taxi basically. So we call those shared autonomous vehicles. But if we can just fill the spaces in those vehicles -- There is so much unoccupied seating in these vehicles everyday on our roads. I mean, the typical vehicle occupancy is one person, so it's mostly single-occupant vehicles out there. And we really need to get that up. If we can put people in hybrids, and we can put them four to a vehicle, or at least two or three to a vehicle thanks to ride-sharing, people willing to share rides with people they don't know. Maybe their app tells them this person has been investigated, there is no criminal record or whatever, this person shares your gender and age and profile, don't worry, you're going to have a great conversation, or this person -- We really need to do that to avoid letting the genie out of the bottle and making not only emissions but congestion much, much worse by making driving easier.


Pius Wong  22:33 

And from what I understand it sounds like the same challenge with public transportation in general. Some cities may not like public transportation, but this sounds like public transportation. Is it a similar challenge to get people to share vehicles?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  22:46 

Yeah, I think so. So we asked that question a lot. We've done many surveys. You know, at my website, we've got over 25 distinct papers on these topics, and maybe four of them are all survey-based, and three or four distinct, maybe five distinct surveys now, so we have a lot of data on who's likely to share, and yeah, it's a lot of people are worried, especially at night, let's say. And then there's other people who are used to public transit, and they are much better at sharing. So we really need to become better sharers, and not just the vehicles but the rides themselves.


Pius Wong  23:20 

You spoke about using a lot of data to draw some of your conclusions. How do you collect all this data? You said surveys, but I'm sure there's other stuff you need to know about about, you know, energy efficiency, or prices and economics. Where does all your data come from?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  23:34 

Well, luckily, our government does gather a lot of data and make it publicly available in part because of taxes. So as I tell my students, taxes drive a lot of data collection, so if there's going to be money collection of taxes, they're going to want to know how many employees you have, how many hours have they worked, where are you, what kind of employees are these. So they're keeping track of a lot of that economic data because of taxation. Same thing with properties. So we do a lot of land use modeling, not just transportation modeling, because land use drives transportation. So where are the stores? Where are the houses where the schools? And you know, where are the roadways? So we keep a lot of spatial data sets. And we're very fortunate that satellites and then cities and counties keep a lot of those data and our metropolitan planning organizations acquire them. So we get them handed to us for like six counties here in Austin. That's the planning organizations' reach, and we get the coded networks for transportation. We know how many lanes are in there. We know what the free flow speeds are. We know whether there's signal lights, things like that. Very, very helpful.


Pius Wong  24:35 

A lot of stuff, but then you have to write software to sort through it all. I'm sure you aren't doing it by hand, right?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  24:40 

Oh, yeah. I mean, computer programming is incredibly important. We're lucky that engineers are usually quite gifted at that. Not all of us are, yours truly included there. But as I mentioned earlier, I've got a computer scientist out there -- and that holiday card she's building, by the way, is really for all my former students. So it's not my personal holiday card. But yeah, it's relaying a lot of what our research has been going on. And she's also doing many other things, like she's reviewing and formatting a big book that we're coming out with, that's going to be very affordable. We just printed through CreateSpace at Amazon, and we make it freely available as a PDF. And so that's going to have a lot of information that will be easily accessible to educators and others.


Pius Wong  25:21 

Awesome. And do they just search for your website if they wanted to find out more about it? Okay, awesome. And I'll put the link on the episode show notes, if anyone's interested. There are a lot of teachers or parents who might be listening, people who are -- who've got to be in charge of young kids in one way or another. If they have a child or teen or a student who is interested in this stuff, first of all, what kinds of questions should they expect to face in the future? Because I know you're tackling these questions now. Do you think that they're going to be facing the same questions, you know, 20 years from now and they're in college or whatever they're doing?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  25:57 

Absolutely. Because our vehicle fleets last and they endure for like 16 years typically. So the average household vehicle is not going to be scrapped. Tou may not still own it, you may have sold it secondhand, then third-hand, maybe, but that vehicle is going to last. That's going to endure. So there's going to be a long period of transition to smarter vehicles. And it'll be interesting. I mean, just like some of our vehicles right now have Bluetooth in them, and some don't, and some can self-brake and others can't to avoid conflicts. There's quite a mix out there. But it's going to become much more interesting. And that's going to take like 40 years to work itself out.


Pius Wong  26:35 

Do you think that there's going to be an issue of, I don't know -- People keep saying the haves and have-nots. I feel like we've seen this happen a lot with other technologies. Is there a way to head it off? Basically, like for young people coming up now with this technology, can we prevent only one group of people getting this technology?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  26:53 

So great question. I do think that transit agencies really need to be involved here and start thinking about making these fleets of available and definitely want competition. So even if it's Uber and Lyft coming in with these fleets early, we're going to want the competition to drive the prices down. And my students' results simulating these fleets through very different environments -- So rural, urban, suburban, suggests that these fleets can be priced at 50 cents per mile. And of course, if you're sharing rides, then you could price them at 25 cents a mile, depends on how many people are in that vehicle with you. So the transit agencies, this is much less expensive than providing transit in almost all of our settings. So they really could be sending mini buses around that sort of divert from routes and make connections and get people where they need to be in mini buses. You know, the reason our buses are so big is because that driver is so expensive, and he or she is on an eight-hour day. These mini-buses can be turned off and on. So don't tell your kids to go into bus driving because that's not going to be a good industry. Same thing. Truck driving is going to be different. They're going to have probably somebody onboard, but he or she is going to be in charge of very different things rather than getting that vehicle to go down the lane ahead.


Pius Wong  28:06 

What should kids now study if they're interested in working in with autonomous vehicles?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  28:12 

Technology is a great place to start. I can tell you however, I'm not a technologist. I have colleagues around me that are great at physics, that are great at computing. And I'm, you know, good at taking data and analyzing and predicting and suggesting policy. So that's where my expertise is. But of course, I was good at math growing up. So that's why I went into engineering. But I didn't really have -- I wasn't a gadget person at all. I didn't have that affinity. Anything in engineering. Math also very helpful. So graduate school is really where a lot of it happens. I think undergraduate you could be in math, you could be outside the field, but make sure you have a really strong technical basis so that you can then pick the right graduate program.


Pius Wong  28:54 

Because there's such a diversity of fields connected to it that you can kind of go in from multiple angles.


Dr. Kara Kockelman  28:59 

Yeah. Young people don't know what they want to be most of the time. I think it's really crazy to expect, you know, a teenager to pick their profession for their lives. So I really just stumbled along. My brothers were doing engineering, not civil engineering. I wanted to help the community. So I just kind of chose civil, and then it wasn't until my junior year of undergrad that I saw a sheet of paper on the wall advertising seven with three zeros after it and a dollar sign in front, which caught my attention back then. And that was able to pay for most of my fourth year of college by just emphasizing transportation, and best decision I ever made. And I hadn't had any transportation classes, hardly. So, you know, it may be something that we don't give you as an undergrad, and you just -- you've become passionate just thinking about as you age. And I should say that the age 21 to 23 is incredibly important for maturation. So a lot of big decisions get made then, and that's when kids can get hooked. So they'll be adults at that point. But that's really -- their brain is still evolving dramatically in that period.


Pius Wong  30:01 

You know, it's interesting because it sounded kind of like chance that you saw the thing on the wall that said, Hey, we'll pay you to study this. I mean, what are the things that people could do to make it easier to be exposed to that kind of stuff? I know that one of the the reason why I bring that up is because today, a hot topic in K-12 is like, a lot of kids just aren't exposed to the idea of civil engineering, for example, or transportation engineering. And maybe they'd be interested, but they don't know. How do you expose kids to this stuff?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  30:30 

Well, I think today's educators are doing a great job. I don't remember, you know, job fairs or anything, but we probably had some doctors show up and talk about their profession or a firefighter or something. But yeah, engineers weren't necessarily coming in. And nowadays they are. I mean, we know that the future is technology, that you can't pay your bills if you go into English a lot of times, and that's really unfortunate. So I think, go ahead, study English, get a degree in it, but also get a degree in something technical at the same time. Protect yourself. You know, you can be a technical writer or something, or you can write books on the side, but you need to protect yourself financially. And so technology is really the best way to do it. Even if you're not a technologist, like I'm not, I just know how to use it. So my work is inspired by it. But it doesn't require that you'd be great with gadgets.


Pius Wong  31:22 

A side question that you reminded me of -- You talked about the importance of statistics and how much it interested you and how much you value them teaching that in schools. Now, there have been conversations of, why don't we stop teaching calculus in high school and instead teach to statistics to high schoolers? What do you think about that?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  31:41 

Well, I think derivatives are pretty important. I think the way things change is pretty important to decision-making. So I'd really want them to focus on on transitions and evolving and decision-making or equipment or whatever it is. Everybody's business or life is facing constant change. And so that is important to be able to anticipate that from equations. But you're right. If we only had to study one thing for every kid, the average kid in any country, then I think, you know, they might really prefer statistics and find it useful. But I can tell you, my sophomores find it incredibly abstract, still, and I'm very applied. I don't give them proofs. I don't do that kind of stuff in my class. It's all engineering. And and they like it, but it's still so scary. It's so abstract. So they're getting it more and more now, doesn't mean that I feel like I have much more educated students coming, and maybe this has happened, you know, more recently than my students right now. But I love it when they've had statistics in high school, it really helps them with probability. It doesn't really help them with my statistics, though, because we do use calculus in engineering statistics. So it helps them with the first part of the course which is really probability, but then when we get into the derivatives and stuff, they have to know their calculus, and that's our first class in statistics. They have to know calculus here in engineering.


Pius Wong  33:01 

Alright, well Kara, thank you so much. I think those were the main questions that I had.  Can you repeat again how  someone might find out more about you?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  33:09 

Sure. If you just Google my crazy last name Kockelman, and Kara, which is Kara, or UTexas, you'll find me. The other Kockelman you might find is my younger brother, who teaches linguistics, or you might find my crazy bungee-jumping older brothers. And you might find my mom or my sister, but we're pretty much the only Kockelmans around.


Pius Wong  33:35 

Yeah, what is that name from?


Dr. Kara Kockelman  33:36 

It's German.


Pius Wong  33:38 

Thank you, Kara, and I really appreciate your time. I know you're super busy, as all professors are. And so just thanks once again.


Dr. Kara Kockelman  33:45 

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks so much for coming in.


Pius Wong  33:52 

That was Dr. Kara Kockelman of The University of Texas at Austin. Find out more about any of the topics you heard today from Dr. Kara Kockelman by checking this episode's show notes for links.


Pius Wong  34:04 

Don't miss any new episodes of the show. Subscribe today on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast player. And leave me some reviews. It'll help share the show. Follow @K12Engineering on Twitter or @PiusWong, and find The K12 Engineering Education Podcast on Facebook. Get the details at the podcast website k12engineering.net.


Pius Wong  34:29 

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent Studio Pios Labs. You can support Pios Labs with regular contributions by going online to patreon.com/pioslabs. You can also send simple one-time contributions by buying me a coffee. Links on how to do this are on the website and in the show notes. Thanks for your support, and as always, thank you for listening