PITTSBURGH—Materials maker Covestro A.G. took more than 100 people on a road trip to the future on Dec. 3.
Covestro, based in Leverkeusen, Germany, with U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh, hosted RoadTrip 2030, a one-day conference that looked at the future of transportation. The event was held in Pittsburgh and featured speakers and panelists from Covestro and several other firms and organizations, including Uber and Carnegie Mellon University.
Self-driving vehicles and ride-sharing services were among the major topics at the event.
"We're sort of in a trough of disillusion right now on self-driving vehicles," said Christian Crews, a futurist and senior manager at consulting firm Kalypso of Fairfield, Conn. "There have been some setbacks, but the fact remains that humans are terrible drivers."
Crews added that the price point of using autonomous vehicles eventually will fall to just above that of public transportation—and that owning a vehicle in an urban area "will become a luxury."
Chris D'Eramo, Uber industrial design lead, said scale is the key in development of self-driving vehicles.
"You would need hundreds of thousands (of vehicles) to impact society and to make an actual change," he said. Uber, a ride-sharing firm based in San Francisco, has operated its Advanced Technologies Group in Pittsburgh since 2015.
D'Eramo added that Uber has ambitions beyond ride-sharing, including self-driving technology and more deliveries of packages and goods.
"Uber's goal is to be the transportation platform for everyone and everything," he said. "We're investing in technology and creating technology of our own. We don't want to wait for someone else to do it."
Paige Kassalen, a market analyst for Covestro, said that her firm's materials, including polycarbonate resins and polyurethane foam, can play a role in both autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing services.
"You have to look at the business models and the ownership of vehicles before deciding on a material," she said. "It's all about the experience the driver wants in a vehicle. Do they want an office on wheels or a hotel on wheels? We can find commonalities."
Polycarbonate can be customized for different types of ambient lighting on vehicle windows, Kassalen added, while PU foam can be used to absorb sound in shared vehicles.
"Covestro has supplied the automotive market for more than 50 years," she said. "We've learned to change how we develop materials and to challenge our assumptions."
Self-driving vehicles continue to hold promise, but challenges remain, according to Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon.
"Driving is the most complex task that adults engage in on a daily basis," he said. "Mimicking human intelligence with computers is not easy."