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‘Disruptive Women Powering Our Autonomous Future’ highlighted women leading autonomous-vehicle companies, design, technology and ethics. The virtual summit, sponsored by Velodyne, raised issues and ways to create a brighter future for women in the autonomous and self-driving space.

The event opened with Sally Frykman, Chief Marketing Officer, Velodyne, saying: “Diversity is good for everyone.”

Selika Josiah Talbott, Strategist and Transportation Executive and lecturer, Autonomous Vehicle Consulting, American University, set the tone for the day, expounding: “Transportation is mobility and mobility is freedom.”

Debbie Dingell, Michigan Congresswoman, explained the importance of supporting legislation.

“The autonomous revolution is coming with immense challenges and many opportunities to reduce fatalities and to provide more mobility – only if we get policies right. We cannot have a patchwork of legislative laws for AVs. We need a framework that respects traditional state roles. We need legislation that puts safety first and get AVs on the road that people can afford.” 

Dingell believes that the U.S. has to stay ahead of other countries and be at the forefront of innovation and technology.

Claire Delaunay, Vice President of Engineering, NVIDIA, says she wound up in engineering by mistake. She started as a classical software engineer. Then she got bored and expanded her horizons by building robotics on the side, in her garage.

Delaunay co-founded Otto at the-right time. She was excited to apply technology to the business problem of self-driving trucks. It is a bounded problem because truck drivers drive the same way multiple times a week – always driving the same route. It creates a concrete problem with a clear business proposition.

“Self-driving vehicles are fascinating. They are at the crossroads of engineering and understanding human beings,” says Delaunay.

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Autonomous Futures Designing for All

Anuja Sonalker, Founder and CEO, STEER, says autonomous technology is where traditional automotive meets computer science meets cybersecurity meets mobility meets user experience, which is all software. She believes there are significant career opportunities in cybersecurity and secure coding with a solid career trajectory.

Design should be inclusive and developed for men and women equally, says Sonalker.

“Women don’t go anywhere without a handbag. There is no place to secure it in a vehicle,” she says, “It is not thoughtful. It is not convenient.” She notes that the Toyota Sienna is the only vehicle with a place to stow a purse.

Jade Hill, Program Manager, Crash Avoidance and Advanced Technologies, Toyota North America, says including everyone brings a different perspective. It makes for a greater product in the end. She is excited about AVs in rural locations to help the economy flourish, giving people access to jobs.

Shani Jayant, Principal UX Designer, Volkswagen Group, thinks that AVs are still years away. She is excited to design the right way for older adults, people with disabilities and rural communities. Jayant says: “We need to develop in ways that are eco-conscious and accessible for people who have been underserved.”

Amanda Prescott, Director of Homologation and Feature Integration, Zoox, says: “What’s exciting for me at Zoox is we are building a vehicle for humans to ride and AI to drive – giving riders the opportunity to do something else while getting somewhere and not losing people to car crashes.”

She likes to ask questions that her male counterparts may not ask about safety and shoes.

“When you step up in your expensive shoes, you don’t want them to squish through the floor. When we get to a drop off location, I don’t want the doors to open. There may be a threat that I don’t want to interact with. I want to wait ten seconds or drive around the corner if the area is not safe,” says Prescott.

Sonia Rief, Vice President, Vehicle Connected Services and Program Management at Nissan North America, comments: “I think we can all imagine the potential and safety of AVs. Then after that, we can take away the hassles of the daily drive. We can still keep some of the best parts— the ability to choose when you want to drive and have the freedom when you don’t want to on a day-to-day basis.”

Dw2021 Panel Disruptive Women In The Driver's Seat Live

Diversity, Biases & Ethics in AI

Genevieve Smith, Associate Director, Berkeley Haas Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership (EGAL), led a panel on ‘Eliminating Hidden Bias in Autonomy and Beyond’. She pointed out there are data gaps in AI. She mentioned a study that found only 22% working on AI systems are women who tend to be in lower positions.

Nandita Mangal, Platform Owner – HMI Vehicle Experience, Aptiv, says: “We need to be mindful of what it means to include demographics. We have to think about the needs of special demographics and special datasets. Data gaps contribute to biases. Data gaps are the route of problems with a lack of data when designing models. For example, female crash test dummies were not used until 2003, providing a data gap and injuring more women.”

Mangal says there can be big consequences in forgetting to include all demographics. The AI inside the cabin is very complex. There should not be a data gap inside the cabin. The industry needs quantitative and qualitative research. Qualitative research brings out biases. User research can identify biases. Systems can have different biases in Europe, U.S. or China.

“I think the impact on safety is just scratching the surface. AI will improve the role of cabin sensing and systems that comprehend human states,” says Mangal.

Neda Cvijetic, Autonomous Vehicles and Computer Vision, NVIDIA says: “Agents can behave in unintended ways that can be silly or unethical because the credits and rewards system was biased.”

Cvijetic notes a diverse team is needed to develop how to collect and label data. If the work is done by people in another country, who don’t know the rules of the road, the model will be biased and suboptimal.

“We have to actively seek diversity in front and backend products,” says Cvijetic.

Sarah Thornton, Autonomy Systems Engineer, Nuro, reports that research on self-driving from Georgia Tech found that the detection of dark skin is 5% less accurate. In fact, bias in technology is not new. Automated handwashing is harder for dark-skinned users. Body scanners in airports select male or female and are biased against transgender people.

“AI right now is immature. Focus on human values and we will more likely achieve safety and accessibility. Ethical behaviour isn’t just a controls problem. It requires coming together and bringing in philosophical questioning,’ says Thornton.

Dw2021 Panel Eliminating Hidden Bias Live

Trust your instincts and follow through. Make sure you join a team you feel good in.

There is great hope for the future of women in autonomous driving. The speakers gave practical advice.

Faith Dukes, K-12 STEM Education Program Director, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, says STEM students are very driven. She says companies should support students and teachers in the classroom and, “everybody needs access to the Internet.”

Delaunay’s advice for women or girls who want to get into AV engineering is: “The people you work with will have a tremendous impact on how you feel about the field. Take the time to carefully choose who you will work for. Change the place you work before changing the field. If you become a specialist, then you have fewer options. Robots are very complex and require a lot of understanding of different pieces. Being a generalist gives you an edge and helps for leadership positions.”

Alisyn Malek, Executive Director, Commission on the Future of Mobility, advises: “Choose what feedback you take and how you take it.”

STEER’s Sonalker suggests women: “Take a leap of faith and you will land on your feet. Start from what you know.”

“There are a lot of opportunities – the possibilities are limitless. Business models are being developed. Within our company, there is great demand. There is still a lot of research to be done. I think anyone can step in,” says Hill, “Don’t be intimidated if you see a room of guys. Sometimes you have to be the first one to break into the group – you can lead the way. Don’t be afraid to take charge. It will look very good on you.”

Volkswagen’s Jayant encourages women: “Trust your instincts and follow through. Make sure you join a team you feel good in. Being yourself leads to the most success for people and your own internal ideas for success.”

“I think it’s important to be genuine and be consistent with who you are. Then people will know what to expect and continue to stay true to who you are regardless of the situation,” adds Sonia Reif.

Amanda Prescott says: “Trust yourself. You are great. You can do it. Don’t assume that you can’t if the job posting has six requirements put in your resume. Be brave. Don’t be afraid to stretch. I read lots of resumes. Nobody has all six points. Bring up what you have. Be proud of what you have.”

Sophie Wang, Director of Product Engineering, Velodyne Lidar, concludes: “If you want to have a career in autonomous vehicles – get in, so you can see it for yourself. It doesn’t matter the exact job title.”

To read our article on five inspiring women designing transportation, click on the link.


  1. Fantastic article and summary of the event. I had so many moments of jotting down quotes, you captured so many thoughts and insights beautifully!

  2. How amazing it is to get all these brilliant women together talking about AV. Thank you for covering this event. It was eye-opening, and I hope they have it available for me to share with my daughter, who has a love of robotics. Events representing women in male-dominated fields are essential for the younger female generation to experience, IMO.

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