Stephen Zoepf remembers getting an odd reaction from fellow students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when, after receiving his undergraduate degree in 2001, he announced plans to work for a major automaker.
"I got kind of the RCA dog look in response. The kind of … 'Really? You're going to go into the automotive industry?'" recalled Zoepf, now executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University in California. "It's because at the time, transportation was considered a safe but not very exciting place to work."
But in today's world of new mobility?
"Exactly the opposite is true. This is an exciting but potentially not very safe place to be working," Zoepf said.
"What that means is that lots of students are being drawn into this space. They want to impact the future of transportation. They want to work for Waymo or one of the other companies that's out here at the ragged edge of research. And what we felt is that students were graduating Stanford with the technical knowledge that they need to contribute in that space, but they didn't necessarily have that sense of responsibility."
To address that shortcoming, Stanford is offering a course called Ethics and Equity in Transportation Systems.
"In this course we attempted to instill in students in just 10 weeks a sense of the burden they carry when they work in the transportation space."
Zoepf says the industry needs to focus more on equitable access to new mobility, including autonomous cars.
"In order to have a truly sustainable transportation system, you need to be providing transportation solutions for all of your population, not just 5 percent or 10 percent of your population," he said.
"One of the principles of design thinking at Stanford is just empathy — developing a profound sense of empathy for the users of your product."
He points to Voyage as a good example. The company deploys robotaxi fleets in retirement communities.
"When you look at the areas that we're focused on, it tends to be places like Silicon Valley, and I'm looking forward to the day that we really deliver on that promise of bringing mobility to all."