Examining the World through Signals and Systems


There’s a mesmerizing video animation on YouTube of simulated, self-driving traffic streaming through a six-lane, four-way intersection. Dozens of cars flow through the streets, pausing, turning, slowing and speeding up to avoid colliding with their neighbors. And not a single car stopping. But what if even one of those vehicles was not autonomous? What if only one was?

In the coming decades, autonomous vehicles will play a growing role in society, whether keeping drivers safer, making deliveries, or increasing accessibility and mobility for elderly or disabled passengers. But, Prof. Cathy Wu argues, autonomous vehicles are just part of a complex transport system that may involve individual self-driving cars, delivery fleets, human drivers, and a range of last-mile solutions to get passengers to their doorstep – not to mention road infrastructure like highways, roundabouts and, yes, intersections. So how can we better understand the problem of integrating autonomous vehicles into the transportation system? Equally important, how can we use this understanding to guide us towards better-functioning systems?

Cathy, who joined LIDS and MIT in 2019, is the Gilbert W. Winslow Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering as well as a core faculty member of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. Growing up in a Philadelphia-area family of electrical engineers, Cathy sought a field that would enable her to harness engineering skills to solve societal challenges.

During her undergraduate years at MIT, she reached out to Professor Seth Teller of CSAIL to discuss her interest in self-driving cars. Teller, who passed away in 2014, met her questions with warm advice, said Cathy. “He told me, ‘If you have an idea of what your passion in life is, then you have to go after it as hard as you possibly can. Only then can you hope to find your true passion.’ … Anyone can tell you to go after your dreams, but his insight was that dreams and ambitions are not always clear from the start. It takes hard work to find and pursue your passion.”

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