Autonomous vehicles are a polarizing topic. Most Americans have a passing awareness and are quick to offer opinions on whether self-driving vehicles are good or bad. Polls consistently show most are cynical and unwilling to give up the wheel to a computer. Until June 19, 2016 I was just like everyone else. That’s the day my 19-year old son, Leo and his best friend Sam were killed in a car crash.
They were driving near our home in Mahwah, New Jersey when they veered off the road into a wooded area. The boys hadn’t been drinking or doing drugs and in a moment, two lives ended and our lives were changed forever. I know that if they’d been in a self-driving car, both young men would still be alive.
Leo and Sam had been best friends since elementary school and both were standout athletes. Leo was a freshman kicker on the University of Rhode Island’s football team and Sam was a wrestler at Rutgers. They were about to head back to school for their sophomore year when they died.
The pain of such an unexpected loss is unimaginable and I can assure you, it doesn’t go away. Multiply that experience by the 40,000 people who died in traffic crashes last year. Imagine the families, relatives and friends who were impacted, and you’ll understand why I’ve become such a passionate advocate for self-driving and connected vehicles.
We need to have this conversation continuously. Next month, I will be speaking at INTERSECT17, a gathering of transportation leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s the kind of critical talk we must embrace rather than run from. These conversations aren’t just about the latest technology — they are about saving lives.
While accidents involving autonomous vehicles may cause panic the fear is unwarranted. When a Florida man died using Tesla’s Autopilot, headlines asked whether the path to autonomy was worth it. The National Transportation Safety Board later issued a report indicating the driver was using Autopilot beyond its capability and ignored safety warnings.
Here’s the good news. Last month in a rare show of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized the importance of advancing self-driving vehicles by passing the “SELF DRIVE” Act, and the Senate has its own version of autonomous vehicle legislation that it will take up in the coming weeks. Both bills can help expand autonomous vehicle testing and provide clarity for federal oversight — where to date, there has only been a patchwork of state regulations. This is just the beginning, but Congress must act now to help make autonomous vehicles a reality.
There will be many obstacles in the path to full adoption. Before we get to completely autonomous vehicles, we must look at the regulatory and monetary needs of our state governments and infrastructure concerning connected vehicle capabilities that will get us to a self-driving future. America’s car culture is also slow to change and there is a multi-billion-dollar economy built around traffic crashes.
Self-driving and connected vehicles are in their infancy, and the aviation industry suffered many setbacks early on, but few would argue that those setbacks outweigh the safety and convenience of the aviation system we now enjoy.
Since Leo and Sam died, I’ve made it my mission to increase awareness about the life-saving potential of self-driving and connected vehicles. Awareness is everything because throughout history, we’ve seen that when consumers demand something, barriers fall away. We are committed to educating politicians, leaders and all Americans about the life-saving potential of existing and developing vehicle technology and getting it out of the research labs, out of Washington, D.C. and onto America’s roads. It’s literally technology we can live with.
Theodore “Teddy” Vagias is an advocate for intelligent transportation systems that will save lives, specifically autonomous and connected vehicles. His personal goal is to reduce vehicle related deaths to zero. He is also a Trustee for The Leonidas Foundation, named in his son’s honor, which is a non-profit organization focused on public service and providing humanitarian relief. He currently serves as the CEO of the Mason Harriman Group that recruits, retains and places CxO level executives from the private, public and nonprofit sector for advisory, turnarounds, interim and permanent CxO level engagements.
Wyckoff, NJ – The Leonidas Foundation was awarded a $1,000 grant on Oct. 12 by Wells Fargo Foundation to support the organization’s mission to promote public service and provide humanitarian relief. The community event was hosted by Wells Fargo’s newly selected region bank presidents, Greg White and AZ Abdulghani, at the East Hanover Marriott in Whippany.
“We truly appreciate Wells Fargo’s support,” said Matthew Perricone, president of the Leonidas Foundation. “We will use this grant to continue our charity, mentorship, and public service initiatives, keeping Leo’s memory by doing good in the community.”
The Leonidas Foundation is a charity organized to promote public service and provide humanitarian relief. While maintaining a strong love of God, country and brotherhood, our endeavors will offer relief to the poor and distressed while fostering mentorship and public service with honor, prowess, and integrity.
“We host this annual breakfast to celebrate, recognize and say thank you to community heroes such as the Leonidas Foundation for all of their invaluable contributions and dedicated service to empower northern New Jersey neighborhoods over the past year,” said Greg White, Wells Fargo’s Northern New Jersey region bank president.
The grant was awarded as part of Wells Fargo’s Community Connections program, which provides local branch managers the opportunity to make a $1,000 charitable contribution on behalf of Wells Fargo to a nonprofit of their choice.
Wells Fargo branches distributed a total of $130,000 in grants to support nonprofit groups serving the northern New Jersey area.
“Each nonprofit grant recipient was identified by our local branches,” said AZ Abdulghani, Wells Fargo’s Gateway region bank president. “They see which nonprofits are out in the community making a difference in the areas where many team members and customers are proud to live and work.”
The annual Community Connections program offers Wells Fargo branch managers the opportunity to provide additional grants to local nonprofits of their choice in New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania.
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