Cultivating future leaders

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As the pace of development in the autonomous vehicle industry continues to accelerate, students who want to make an impact in the field must keep up. It’s critical for them to stay current on the latest advancements, which are constantly evolving, and to come out of school with the skill set they need to help potential employers push driverless technologies forward.

Hexagon recognizes the importance of cultivating future leaders in this industry and is working closely with universities and colleges to prepare students for successful careers. NovAtel and AutonomouStuff, both brands in Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division, are working with institutions focusing on functional safety and software creation for autonomous systems.

These types of partnerships give companies like Hexagon a pipeline of students who know their products and are prepared to quickly start contributing once they enter the workforce, said Gordon Heidinger, automotive and safety critical systems segment manager at Hexagon’s Autonomy & Positioning division.

NovAtel is currently in talks with the University of Windsor and St. Clair College about curriculum additions, while the University of Illinois has offered safety and other autonomy courses in partnership with AutonomouStuff— using one of the company’s signature Automated Research Development Platforms—for about two years.

“In the automotive industry, it takes three to five years to implement a new technology to be sold to the public, so if you’re not producing students who have skill in or knowledge of that technology, you’re slowing the process down even more,” Heidinger said. “To implement new technologies or new parts in high volume scenarios takes a lot of effort, so you want students to be fresh. Keeping the universities up to date on what is being developed is key to success.”

Developing the curricula

Both the University of Windsor and St. Clair College are focused on the automotive manufacturing side, Heidinger said, and are the perfect curriculum partners. While they’re still early in the planning process, institution partners do have some ideas of where they’d like the curricula to go.

“The curriculum we want to add is very much on trend with autonomous technology and autonomous vehicles,” Heidinger said. “The vehicles are getting more and more complicated and sophisticated. There are hundreds of millions of lines of software code that are constantly updating. The modern car uses up to 200 million lines of code already, and with autonomous functionality that will grow exponentially. The curriculum we’re trying to help them grow addresses that marketplace, focusing on topics like safety critical systems and cybersecurity.”

When educators from the University of Windsor first began talking with Hexagon, they focused on finding the
biggest gaps in training and education. Functional safety kept coming up, and will be an area of focus in any curriculum that’s developed, said the university’s data and mobility science project manager, Tom Schnekenburger.

“In this new automotive and mobility ecosystem, safety by design has to be a core part of the infrastructure,” Schnekenburger said. “Everything is more integrated and connected than ever before, and as we build more complex and newly connected systems, safety has to be a central theme.”

The University of Windsor is starting to emphasize micro-credentialing or micro-certifications, giving students from a variety of majors exposure to different types of programs and ways of thinking, Schnekenburger said. These are typically 10-week courses, with students receiving an additional badge or certificate at the end to add to their degree. That’s likely where curriculum will start, but there’s also potential to develop course pathways and more detailed, core programming from there.

St. Clair College, an applied research and development institution, would like to integrate software training programs Hexagon already offers at other institutions on the manufacturing side, director, applied research and development Peter Wawrow said. Students who complete these hands-on courses, which might cover measuring systems as an example, would become Hexagon-trained, putting them on a pathway directly into the company. 

Once those courses are established on the manufacturing side, there’s also interest in narrowing down into areas NovAtel might cover as well, such as critical systems, using existing Hexagon software training courses as a template. 

Moving forward, the plan is to coordinate with faculty experts to determine how curriculum from NovAtel that delves into topics like safety critical systems and cybersecurity best fit into their current programming, Heidinger said. The goal is to adapt what they already have so it’s current and covers the most state-of-the-art technologies. That might mean starting with one course, a thesis or project that can be implemented right away, and then building from there.

“We’re trying to understand what vehicle will have the biggest impact,” Schnekenburger said. “Let’s work backward from NovAtel’s ideal candidate, figure out what that person looks like and build the curriculum around that.”

The established program

At the University of Illinois, “Principles of Safe Autonomy” uses an AutonomouStuff platform to introduce students to all the different elements that go into the autonomous stack, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Katherine Driggs-Campbell said. This includes modules on perception that focus on computer vision and machine learning, and modules that cover the dynamics and kinematics of vehicles, for example. The course wraps up with a safety assessment on tools and mechanisms. The AutonomouStuff platform is housed at the new Center for Autonomy and The Grainger College of Engineering. 

AutonomouStuff provides a “great platform” so students aren’t just getting the theoretical; they’re also gaining hands-on experience.

“In labs they get to do something with the vehicle that’s relevant for the module. For perception that might be lane detection,” Driggs-Campbell said. “They can identify lanes in the road and then provide information for control.”

Students also are encouraged to build a project around the piece of autonomy they find the most exciting, Driggs-Campbell said.

“Some students are excited about the idea of how autonomy can improve efficiency and sustainability, for example, so they look at control designs that can improve those metrics,” she said.

Benefits for students

The students who get to work with the AutonomouStuff platform have unique experience and the opportunity to actually deploy what they do, Driggs-Campbell said. It’s fun for them and, most importantly, they get to see the difference between the theory taught in class and what happens when problems come up in the simulation- based labs. They see first-hand that getting something to work reliably in the real world is more difficult than they realized.

“It’s always great to provide the basics of what it means to be career ready,” Schnekenburger said, “but it pales in comparison to the ability to get students into real-world problems and to actually solve them.”

Of course, having a linkage to industry gives students a huge advantage when it’s time to look for a job, Wawrow said. They get to see what companies are out there, and to receive training that brings them closer to that industry experience. They’re better prepared and won’t require additional training to get them up to speed once they hire in, and that helps make them more marketable, expanding their job prospects.

Hexagon also works with students on activities and competitions, which is another important aspect of building relationships and introducing young talent to the company, Heidinger said. Through these events and the curricula being built, students have the opportunity to work hands-on with positioning equipment from Hexagon.

“We donate equipment for them to learn how positioning works and how receivers work,” he said. “Students are excited to work with this high-end equipment and get hands-on with some of the best solutions out there. We’re cultivating the education so when they come out of school there’s minimal training required. They know our existing products and can hit the ground running to help us develop new products.”

Benefits for the schools

Working with industry partners like Hexagon, the university can identify what’s missing in current programing and make adjustments, Schnekenburger said. When it comes to functional safety, for example, it’s critical to make sure the current curriculum is relevant and that students are getting the type of information and training they need to contribute to the industry right away.

Offering these opportunities makes the institutions more attractive to prospective students. Companies like AutonomouStuff and NovAtel are well-known and respected, and the prospect of working with them in a classroom setting and possibly even being hired could be a factor when they’re deciding where to enroll.

And then there’s the ability to collaborate with NovAtel on research projects, Schnekenburger said, and to generate interest to bring more people into the space.

“It’s laid the groundwork for a number of new opportunities,” Wawrow said. “It paves the way for larger efforts around autonomy at the college.”

Independent of the courses, having the AutonomouStuff platform on hand has been useful for the university’s research efforts, Driggs-Campbell said.

“It makes a lot of the forward-looking research questions a lot easier when you don’t have to think about building up your own autonomous systems,” she said. “We can focus on the deeper questions and don’t have to worry about integration. The platform has expedited a lot of our research projects.”

Significance for industry

It’s easy for professors and students to lose sight of how quickly the automotive industry changes, and just how dynamic the landscape is, Schnekenburger said. To make students career-ready, it’s critical to not only teach them the basics, but also the ability to adapt as the way systems interplay continues to change. Partnerships with industry leaders like Hexagon make that possible.

Most classes go deep into one piece of the puzzle, such as signal processing and class control, Driggs-Campbell said, which is important, but the University of Illinois curriculum uses an AutonomouStuff platform to offer a full systems view. Students get to see how everything chains together, which is critical, especially as the technologies continue to evolve.

“The technology and tools being developed to design autonomous cars are moving at a lightning pace,” Heidinger said. “As a student, if you’re not moving along with the speed of the curve, you’re going to fall behind and be less relevant. Then, you’re going to have an uphill battle at the beginning of your career.” 

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