As Cindy Heredia was choosing an MBA program, she realized her goal was to stay on the cutting edge of the autonomous vehicle industry. In her research she found that MIT offered an exclusive service which was a student-run driverless program. Heredia made an application to MIT to be a part of the team, hoping to gain hands-on experiences.
“My hope is that we’re able to find ways to leverage tools and technologies, such as ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles, and harness the variety of modes available to serve vulnerable populations that have traditionally been underserved by existing options,” Heredia discusses.
When she was just eight, Heredia was immersed with automobiles, and was able to fix car radios in order to support her family. Growing up in a low-income community in Laredo, Texas, Heredia believed that mobility was a crucial means to gain access to work opportunities, education, and access to opportunity at an early age. The car that was the sole vehicle in her family was always used to work, which made it difficult to fulfill basic needs like going to the doctor. As she aged and her friends became less active, she noticed that they were having difficulty obtaining employment due to long buses that took many hours.
Being accepted to MIT and announcing her participation on with the Driverless group was the first of her steps towards solving the problem of transportation disparities. Under the auspices and guidance of the MIT Edgerton Center, MIT Driverless creates its own artificial intelligence software that allows autonomous driving contests. By leveraging their skills and resources, Driverless teamed up with the University of Pittsburgh, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as well as the University of Waterloo, Canada and formed the MIT-PITT RW and participate at the Indy Autonomous Challenge.
In the winter of 2021 Heredia was named co-captain of the team. It’s not always been straightforward. In the Indy Autonomous Challenge in November the MIT-PITT RW team was the only entirely student-run team among nine teams. “There have been many ‘no’s’ our team has received,” Heredia admits. “We’ve been informed that a team of students shouldn’t be even in the race grid. We’ve had a traumatic crash just two days prior to an event (that we were able to recover to!). We’ve witnessed teammates leave. Personal life events take place. We’ve managed to overcome everything and emerge strong. No one has ever put us down.”
A terrifying crash during practice for the 2023 Indy Autonomous Challenge
The development of reliable algorithms for decision-making is a major challenge because of the risk of the wrong interpretation of sensor data which can lead to collisions. Additionally, when driving at speeds of more than 150 mph the need for quick decision-making increases and teams are forced to constantly improve the technology they have. Teams like MIT-PITT RW are pushing the limits by experimenting with new algorithms at speeds that are considered to be dangerous for roads that are normally used that are driving technological advancements across the industry.
Despite these obstacles In January, MIT-PITT-RW set an all-time speed record of 150 mph during times trials (competing with the best lap times) during the Indy Autonomous Challenge and placed fourth overall at the Indy Autonomous Challenge for the first time. They also broke a record for the team of 154 mph when they passed another car. The next race for the Driverless team takes them to the legendary Monza circuit located in Italy in Milan Monza Motor Show. Milan Monza Motor Show June 16-18.
As she is preparing to complete the degree of MBA, Heredia reflects on her role as a leader and emphasizes the importance of establishing trust between team members “This is largely a team job. You need to be able to deal with different personalities. Knowing how effectively manage your group is extremely important and it starts by establishing confidence with your team members. I’ve discovered that the most effective method of doing this is to never make any demands of anyone you wouldn’t do for yourself. It’s one thing to say to your team members, “You’re important to me and I’m here to help you. It’s a different matter to demonstrate that consistently through the actions you take.”
Heredia is encouraging females of colour to assume leading roles in the autonomous driving industry. “You will need to be visible and be visible and not hide from the world. If you’re invited to the room, you must to remind yourself of the fact that you are worthy to be there.” The author believes that there is more help available than you imagine. “There is a surprising number of women of color in leadership roles at self-driving companies, and I’m grateful to call some of them my mentors.”
Heredia advises that anyone entering into this field must be prepared for the possibility of failure. “There are instances where you could try listening as much as you possibly can and come to a conclusion that may not be the right choice. This kind of project involves a significant amount of risk. Having confidence that it will have failures in the beginning is essential. That’s fine. You’ll gain the most from going through the most challenging moments. Therefore, you think about it, pivot and continue to move forward. My advice is to enter with the belief that this is an opportunity to learn. Use that mindset to help people believe that anything is possible by sharing the lessons you’ve learned during the process.”
Many people are predicting the demise of personal vehicle ownership due to the introduction of self-driving vehicles Heredia is of the opinion that it will be a gradual process. She is planning for a future career path in the field of autonomous vehicles, while recognizing the serious challenges it poses. In the near future she would like to see us could also utilize these technologies to benefit society and make them available to the communities like hers that she lived in as a child. “It’s an incredibly interesting problem that, I think, still has a long road ahead (pun intended).”