Vasundhara Jain teaches cars to drive completely autonomously: as a motion-planning engineer, she is currently developing concepts in a cooperative project with Bosch so that fully automated vehicles respond precisely in certain traffic situations. The technology will be used in the first fully automated taxi – while ensuring the safety of the occupants and all other road users. In her interview, she tells us why she thinks that computers can sometimes be the better drivers, what she particularly liked during her master's dissertation and doctorate internship at Daimler and why she already decided on her dream profession as a child.
Vasundhara, you are working in a joint Daimler/Bosch project to bring the first self-driving car onto the roads. What does that involve?
In this project, we are developing a fully automated driving system that can be booked via an app. The self-driving taxi comes to the desired location to collect the passengers, then takes them to their destination – all without a driver. Afterwards, the taxi makes its way to the next passenger. In the future, this will provide an attractive alternative in personal transportation, while reducing the number of vehicles in cities.
And in Motion Planning, you develop ways in which the vehicle behaves in certain situations?
That's right. Naturally, the project is particularly concerned with traffic situations in cities. They often have roads with vehicles parked closely on both sides, as well as many other vehicles and pedestrians. We work on how the vehicle should react, for example, when a pedestrian crosses the road. The next step is to integrate the system into the vehicle and test it.
With the fist self-driving taxi, we are creating an attractive alternative in personal transport, reducing the number of cars in cities and making road traffic safer.
What is the greatest challenge when planning driving behavior?
One of the difficulties is that there is no perfect predictive system. No technology can cover all situations in advance. As a team, we have to keep these uncertainties in mind all the time when developing and planning our algorithms. Our task is to use the data provided by the vehicle's sensors to program the vehicle's reactions so that both the passengers and all other road users are as safe as possible. That is our top priority. The fact that a vehicle doesn't become tired or distracted by events happening outside the traffic flow works to our advantage. This makes them better drivers in the relevant situation, and will greatly help to improve traffic safety in the future. Efficiency is also a key factor when designing our systems.
What do you mean, exactly?
There are highly complex programs that perform extremely complicated calculations in fractions of a second – for example to control vehicle reactions. So these calculations are made in real time. However, this requires enormous processing capacities that are currently not realizable in vehicles. In our team we therefore develop resource-conserving systems that combine safety and reliability with efficiency.
I think it's great that Daimler is so far ahead in these areas. There are plenty of "hot spots" in the company where I can work in the future.
What do you especially enjoy in your work?
I find the innovative nature of my tasks particularly exciting. The work we do makes a contribution to the "Next Big Thing". Fully automated and driverless vehicles will revolutionize the way we travel in the future. This also means that a completely new approach is needed during the development work. It becomes more important to combine different areas of expertise. Right now, I enjoy that I'm currently working a lot with programing languages. I also really like working directly on the vehicles when we test our systems.
Your work sounds very varied!
It certainly is! And I think it's great that Daimler is so far ahead in these areas. There are plenty of "hot spots" in the company where I can work in the future: one example is the new S-Class, where we expect to make conditionally automated driving at Level 3 possible.
Or the cooperation with NVIDIA to develop an intelligent computer architecture for all future Mercedes-Benz model series. For me as an engineer, this is unbelievably interesting and attractive.
Editor’s Note: In conditionally automated driving, the vehicle can perform most driving tasks. However, the driver must be ready to take over control of the vehicle at all times on short notice.
You joined Daimler as an intern, and wrote your master's dissertation here. How did that come about?
Working in the automotive sector has always been my dream. I grew up in New Delhi, India. Cars already fascinated me as a child. The walls of my room were festooned with posters showing cars and Formula 1 drivers. In my youth I read a great deal about technology. I quickly realized that I wanted to do something with automobiles, and decided on studying for a Bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. I then came to Germany to study for my master's degree, and received an offer for an internship at Daimler. I immediately felt at home in the working atmosphere here. So I was very happy to stay in the company after my studies.
There are many career paths at Daimler, whether your personal goal is to be a manager or an expert in a specialized technical field.
What do you like about the atmosphere at Daimler?
The open-minded culture. Ideas and suggestions are welcomed, encouraged and developed further – the best possible climate for innovation. At the same time there are very good career opportunities and further training options. Irrespective of whether you want to become a manager or an expert in a specialized technical field.
You are currently working on your doctoral thesis …
Yes. I'm taking my doctorate at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. This is also about autonomous driving, and the concepts with which collisions can be safely and reliably avoided. As a doctorate student, Daimler gives me a lot of partner-like support, for example if I need certain equipment such as software for my research. And whenever I get stuck with something, my superior always comes up with good advice or a suggestion to solve the problem.
One last personal question: How would you spend your time if you were able to use a self-driving car on your way to work?
I would relax or use an app to check the news. And on a longer journey I would probably read. I'm a great fan of fantasy novels, for example by Terry Pratchett (laughs).
In person: Vasundhara Jain (29) Vasundhara Jain already developed a fascination for cars as a child. Her father is likewise an automotive enthusiast, and took his daughter on trips in and around New Delhi in the family car at an early age. As a graduated engineer, she now works at Daimler to ensure that self-driving cars are on the roads safely in the future. Vasundhara not only practices her advanced problem-solving skills by teaching the first self-driving taxi to drive, but also by indulging in her private passion for puzzles of all kinds. As a native of India, what impresses her about Germany is the innovative strength of this automotive location – although she had to get used to the southern German cuisine.