Development of an Autonomous Platooning Campus Vehicle System; The Effect of US Public and Media Opinion on the Space Industry

Wilson, Alexander, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Furukawa, Tomonari, EN-Mech & Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia
Forelle, MC, University of Virginia

As technology becomes more advanced and requires less human interaction to function, we must decide how to keep these self-reliant technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, as safe as possible. By keeping safety as a priority in the development of these technologies, it keeps the publics’ faith in the technology that it is doing more good than harm. NASA has grappled with this issue since its inception. Faulty launches have made the US public question why their taxpayer money is going to failed space programs that have killed Americans, but NASA also has the goal of striving for space technology innovation. This balance between maintaining safety while still making advancements in technology is a slippery slope that we have had to deal with in our technical project. The safety of people not only riding in our platoon of golf carts, but also those in the vicinity of them was a major priority in the design of our system. This priority of safety limited the potential of the golf cart platooning system but was a necessary trade off that we made.
The technical project in this report talks about the development of two Club Car golf carts that have platooning capabilities. The motivation for this project comes from the limited transportation options for students and faculty at UVA who have movement disabilities. Charlottesville has steep terrains which hinder the ability of people at UVA to get around grounds. On top of that, the UVA transportation system, while robust, is not suited to serve the individual needs of this group of people. The system of platooning golf carts will allow a single person who is capable of driving to lead a platoon of golf carts that will autonomously follow the leader cart. The people riding in the follower golf carts will not need to interact with the driving mechanisms of the golf cart at all as the leader leads them to their destination. A major focus of this project was the implementation of safety features in the golf cart and the prevention of possible accidents.
The STS research paper examines how the publicly funded nature of NASA has affected its ability to develop new space technologies. The paper then examines the modern rise of privatized space and how public and media attention will not have the same affect on these private companies as it does on NASA. The STS framework the social construction of technology (SCOT) is used to examine how public and media attention affected funding for NASA since its inception in 1958. The paper includes quantitative data focused on how NASA’s funding has changed with different geopolitical events and shows the stark contrast of funding methods for private space companies. Other sources used throughout the paper include media opinion articles on space exploration from different time periods as well as poll results related to space exploration. From this research paper, I found that the media and public attention surrounding NASA directly affected their funding, which reduced their likelihood to take risks on new space technologies. In contrast, private space companies have no obligation to the general US public, and therefore will take on more risk, but also create more advancements in space technology.
Working on both my technical project and STS research paper simultaneously has made me realize the struggles of publicly funded research and technological innovation. When an outside source is paying for your research, such as the US public for NASA or UVA for our technical project, you are more passive in your approach and are less likely to take leaps of faith that may end in either a major breakthrough or a complete failure. Researchers that have this looming issue of having an obligation to the person or group who is paying for their research are hindered by this and are slower to make technological progress. Doing the technical project at the same time as my STS research paper put me in a position where I could relate to NASA’s peculiar position as a publicly funded research organization and how that affects their ability to do research.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
SCOT, Space Exploration, Public Opinion

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Tomonari Furukawa
STS Advisor: MC Forelle
Technical Team Members: Cameron Chiaramonte, Patrick Dunnington, Gilchrist Johnson, Nicholas Sofinski

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