Roamin’ Numerals: How a Ford Engineer Honored Pi Day to Celebrate How Math Is Powering Self-Driving Cars

While Pi Day may seem like a made-up holiday, March 14 – 3.14 – actually provides us with an opportunity to recognize the important role mathematics plays in just about everything we do or interact with on a daily basis. For me, Pi Day also serves as an opportunity to appreciate the people who helped me understand and get excited about numbers and formulas.
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Pi written on blackboard
Pi Day offers an opportunity to realize the impact math has in our day-to-day lives, writes John Rich. // Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

This piece was written on the eve of Pi Day 2020.

While Pi Day may seem like a made-up holiday, March 14 – 3.14 – actually provides us with an opportunity to recognize the important role mathematics plays in just about everything we do or interact with on a daily basis. For me, Pi Day also serves as an opportunity to appreciate the people who helped me understand and get excited about numbers and formulas.

As a kid, we don’t always see the profound impact our parents, teachers, and role models are having on the person we ultimately become and the subjects we find most interesting.

Hopefully, we have all had one or two people we can point to who positively shaped our lives.

For me, it was my dad. An astrophysicist and director of engineering for the Hubble Space Telescope, I learned to appreciate the importance of mathematics from him. My dad would take me to observatories and explain in incredible detail how telescopes worked, what we were looking at when we saw stars in the sky and how far away other planets were. Without realizing it, these conversations were capturing my imagination and steering me down a career path heavily reliant on math.

Since I started working at Ford, math has played a critical role in everything I do. Cars work because of how we deploy math; even the fundamentals of how a car door opens and closes involve a series of tolerance and precise mathematical models. Before a sheet of metal is ever even bent, the most basic elements of a car are represented as a mathematical model.

Without math, self-driving cars wouldn’t be conceivable, as numbers and formulas play a critical role in how an autonomous vehicle analyzes the world. A series of sophisticated equations are required for the vehicle to understand its environment, estimate its location, and make driving decisions, which it can do by calculating distance, speed, velocity, and other variables. All the input a self-driving car gets from its sensors — its cameras, LiDAR, and radar units — has to be converted into data that can be digested by algorithms.

With all of this data fused into mathematical equations, algorithms help a self-driving car determine where it is on a street in relation to everything else, including pedestrians, cyclists, and other cars. The next step is to decide what action needs to be taken — does the car need to accelerate, change lanes, come to a stop, etc. All of this is driven by an entirely different set of math-based tools.

(Now that we highlighted) Pi Day, maybe you will take a moment to look at everyday things a little differently. Instead of seeing a car traversing the street, maybe you will think of the vehicle as a physical representation of millions of lines of code in action, detecting and deciphering the world around it. Or maybe you will take a moment, like I will, to just think about and thank that person in your life who helped you understand algebra, translate trigonometry or decode calculus. Thanks, Dad!

John Rich is COO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles.

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