Wednesday 21 August 2019

More girls studying Stem is the only way things will change in the 'bro culture' of tech

THIS WORKING LIFE

Rebecca Feeney Barry

Head of Behaviour Planning, Starsky Robotics

In conversation with Mary McCarthy

Driving change: Rebecca Feeney Barry is focusing on the development of automated trucks
Driving change: Rebecca Feeney Barry is focusing on the development of automated trucks

The human touch

In June, we were the first company to put an unmanned self-driving truck on a public highway. We test-drove a commercial truck for nine miles along the Florida Turnpike in the United States with nobody in it, changed lanes and kept a speed of 55mph.

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For two years prior to this, I was leading the team writing the software that allows our trucks to make decisions, after going through possible alternatives and carrying out a prediction to see which one is the best. This is done in a couple of seconds.

People are smarter at navigating many of the nuances of driving than the most advanced computer systems, and this is why we are not taking out the human element completely.

We use remote drivers sitting in an air-conditioned office to take over navigation at the most complex stages, such as entering or leaving the highway and driving to distribution centres. We are not going to replace truckers' jobs; we aim to make them nicer.

The motorway environment is the easiest to automate because of the limited number of manoeuvres possible, and the intentions of other vehicles are easier to identify.

Our trucks will allow for less fuel consumption and will make trucking safer, as almost all accidents are down to driver error.

Change needed

There is a shortage of 60,000 truck drivers in the US, with almost 100pc yearly turnover, in an industry that pays well compared with other jobs where you don't need a degree.

It is unpleasant to sit in a truck for weeks and not many young people want to do this.

The average age of a trucker is 55 in the US, and freight costs will continue to go up unless something changes.

A healthy economy depends on trucking and Ireland should also ensure attention is paid to this important industry. The US is the ideal market for self-driving trucks, not so much Ireland, as the longest drive you can take is four hours. Australia is another huge potential market for us. In Ireland, there is a bigger possibility for the application of the technology in farming vehicles.

Going driverless

We pick certain highways we know which will work, and we are looking at next year rolling out trucks with no humans in them. It is now fully legal in Florida to do this. For the past couple of years, there has been a lot of hype around self-driving cars. The reality is the autonomous industry is a good five years out from rollout around geographically-limited and well-mapped urban areas like Detroit, Phoenix (Arizona) and San Francisco.

I would say putting a fully automated car on the road in Dublin, which you can fall asleep in, will take another 20 years.

Building a 100pc autonomous vehicle that can deal with all scenarios and validating it's safe is an incredibly difficult task.

San Francisco life

Working in tech here means constant chat about startups, IPOs, and gossip about who has acquired who. It's like talking house prices in Ireland.

Everyone who moves here gets healthier. Even if you tend towards pints, and curry and chips, the culture sucks you in and you can't help but start jogging and eating chia seeds. People are flamboyant and project their individual identity more so than in Ireland.

It's exciting to see new ideas percolate up. For example, the arrival of smoothie-making robots; you order on an app and pick up at a kiosk.

Big egos

There can be a 'tech bro' culture of one-upmanship, which can be off-putting for women, and there is still a kind of worship of someone who has been hacking away for days writing code.

At Starsky, we have a low-ego, collaborative engineering culture, but we are still not great on the gender divide; we have five females out of 30 on the engineering side.

Last year, we found only 5pc of our applicants were female, so we are working to address this.

When I studied physics at Trinity, there were six females in a class of 50. More girls studying Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) is the only way things will change.

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