The first time Patrick McGinty saw a driverless car, he got to thinking about how the vehicles could impact society.
“I’m really conflicted,” he said of weighing the pros and cons.
The Slippery Rock University professor has enlisted the help of about two dozen freshmen who are enrolled in his seminar course this coming semester, which starts Aug. 26.
The class will be researching driverless cars, compiling data for what McGinty hopes will be useful information for those who work in the sector. He’s excited to learn alongside the students.
McGinty received a $4,000 grant through Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Faculty Professional Development Council grant program. His proposal was one of 48 accepted from faculty across the state system’s 14 institutions.
SRU started offering seminar courses for freshmen a few years ago as a requirement. The classes are designed to appeal to students from all areas of study and center on a topic that the professor doesn’t typically teach.
McGinty is an English professor, and he lives in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Morningside.
He’s been hearing and seeing more about driverless cars, especially in larger cities like Pittsburgh. Driverless cars are heavily regulated and still in the testing stages.
“They do test runs all over the city,” he said of Pittsburgh.
McGinty has become acquainted with some people who help develop the vehicles, and said there are a few driverless car companies in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.
The vehicles are easy to spot because of sensors and cameras, and there is always a driver behind the wheel.
McGinty has seen these vehicles up close, and said they look like a typical car with a few extra features.
There are many angles to explore, like whether the vehicles are safer for the environment and the passengers, and how they’re regulated by auto insurance companies.
There’s even a “fashion” angle. Some of the driverless car technology recognizes road crews wearing a certain color of safety vest, for example. That software needs to be updated to include more than one color.
He’s not sure if he’d ever like to own a driverless car, but he’s keeping an open mind.
He considers the fact that he spends a lot of time in his car for his work commute – time that he could use to complete work projects.
McGinty has seen a lot of car accidents on his way to and from SRU, and he wonders if driverless cars could help curb distracted driving.
He wants the students to participate in discussions about the positives and negatives of driverless cars. He wants them to get excited, and he knows that their age group has spent a lot of time living with technology, so their input will be valuable.
“Theirs is a necessary perspective,” he said.
The students will write a play or fictional story about driverless cars, which McGinty believes will help them imagine many different scenarios about the future of the automobile.
At the end of the semester, the students will present information to someone who works in the driverless car field.
Students who want to continue their research after the semester ends could enroll in computer science classes, or form a club.
McGinty speculates that it will be at least five or six years before the public can buy driverless cars; the deadlines keep changing, he said.
He is also working on a novel that is based on a driverless car tester – a storyline that’s typically geared toward science fiction.
“Now it’s kind of reality,” he said.