Cars of the future (Autonomous / Self-Driving) pose not just a technological challenge but also a human behavioral challenge that requires a holistic approach which blends engineering acumen, interaction design sense and social science research.

Nikhil Gowda, our next pathbreaker, applies Human Centric Design to in-car Voice Agent Interaction systems to improve driver safety through empirical Human Machine Interaction research.

Nikhil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on the psychological aspects of Human Machine Interaction in the self-driving vehicle space.

For students, there are several fascinating problems to solve if we want to bring to reality, the cars of tomorrow . Pick a problem that excites you !

Nikhil, tell us about Your background?

I grew up in Bangalore, India where I went to an engineering college to study Mechanical Engineering at R. V. College of Engineering, Bangalore. The primary drive to do this was my passion for Automotive Design.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was not smart enough then to understand that you don’t need Engineering to pursue Design, but I was lucky to have liked Engineering. 

I was even more lucky to be part of a race car design team building prototypes for the Formula SAE design competition. 

I even led the team for 2 years and took a car to Germany, each year for the 3 years that I was part of this amazing project. The team still exists and they have built better cars each year participating in different international competitions. 

My post grad was an MBA at an Art School. I literally googled “design + MBA” and applied to the program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. At CCA I met Dr.Wendy Ju who was leading a team doing Autonomous Vehicle HMI (Human machine Interaction) research at Stanford University. I worked part time with her, while I was getting my degree.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

The career chose me. I stayed because it was challenging and found that I could see solutions and make connections. I was able to contribute and work with other researchers. 

Ashwa Racing was a team that a few enterprising seniors wanted to start at RVCE (R. V. College of Engineering, Bangalore). When I joined, they had a rough chassis welded by hand and wheels bolted onto an axle. These were the humble beginnings of the race car team. I joined and poured my heart and soul into it. My grades took a hit, but I persevered. I put in the most time compared to any other engineering student and was hence the primary candidate in running the team as team captain. I was able to navigate engineering, talk to sponsors, convince local administration at the college and manage the team of students. Leadership did not come naturally to me. I could not rally the troupes well enough and learnt not to bank on anyone. If I wanted it done, I would do it. This left me burnt out and others disenfranchised. Luckily I was aware of this, but there wasn’t time to fix this. After 3 years in the team, I decided to leave and let the junior members mind their own stable. I did not wish to intervene and monitor them, as I was confident they could learn from my challenges and find better ways of working together. 

After Ashwa Racing, I started a renewable energy company that dealt with Solar Water Heaters, a low barrier to entry business, but it was a start. I was installing the water heater for a client one day, who was also a top official at Bangalore University. He spoke of a problem that they were facing with the OMR (Optical Mark reading) method of data entry and logging. I had two friends who were looking to leave Accenture and start their own company. So we started Attris Technologies, and the company still builds software for various universities to bring processes to the 21st century. I am not part of Attris, as I was troubled by similar people management problems, like back in Ashwa Racing. In 2013, I was thinking a lot about potentially going to b-school, and wondered if it might help me learn people and day to day management skills. At the same time, I knew I did not want to do a traditional MBA in Finance or Accounting. Business had taught me to hire/out-source such tasks to experts. I wanted to do something that could lead to innovative ideas and businesses for the future that were sustainable. All of this led to combining Design, that looks at the human needs, and business, that looks at delivering the value proposition. To me it made perfect sense that they go hand in hand, and learning it through school would give me the language and methods to be able to manage people through frameworks and processes. 

My key influencers were Rory Byrne and Richard Branson 

I did not and still do not have mentors, besides the support form my dad. He is a pretty good foundation for me to take small risks.

I met Rory Byrne at a conference where he spoke about the days when Race Car engineering was done on paper and not CAD/FEA etc. He spoke of himself as a god made engineer. He meant that he did not get an engineering degree and learnt on the job. This gave me a sense of curiosity and strength in trying things that are new and seem too hard / “need a degree”.  

The next turning point was coming to CCA in SF. The primary motivation to do this was because I was trying to run a business after graduation, but found it really hard. Although I never felt that one needs a degree to do better, as I was learning along the way, I just wanted to take a break and go back to school. I was sure I did not want to do a traditional MBA and still craved to add back some ‘design’ into my repertoire. 

I kept my eyes open and talked to everyone about what i wanted to do. A classmate introduced me to Wendy Ju at Stanford, because I told everyone I knew, that I wanted to work on Automotive Research and maybe even in the self-driving vehicle space. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I did not have a goal, and it was serendipitous. I was able to work with Dr Wendy Ju at Stanford and found HMI Research challenging. It needed engineering acumen, interaction design sense and philosophy/social science research knowhow. I was at the right place at the right time to discover this field of research. 

HMI seemed to be a sticky topic in the race for self-driving technology in 2013. Everyone wanted to build AVs (Autonomous Vehicles) that were capable of taking over control. With my newly acquired design lens, I instinctively knew that a lot needed to be learnt about how humans would behave in an AV, and about emerging needs while the car moves from point A to B on its own. I began seeing psychological aspects like Sense of Trust and Sense of Control that are important to users and wanted to dig deeper through empirical research. Without research, it was obvious that no one would take you seriously. And research can be as simple as looking at previous work or data on the internet (secondary research) or through participatory studies designed for structure and repeatability. I think my issues in prior engagements in managing people gave me a deep sense of empathy. I was now able to see that it wasn’t that in many instances I had a gut feeling I was right and everyone should have simply followed my lead, but that if I presented the problem clearly and the solutions developed through some research, I might have made sense, been more of a leader and less of a dictator. 

Luckily, money was not a problem as I was doing business for 3 years after graduation and had the means and also secured a student loan for the rest. 

My work at Stanford involved building simulation environments (much like Minecraft you plop assets to build a world) and programmed scenarios (in Javascript) to elicit a human response. This latter part is challenging as you want to trigger a response from the participant in a study and then measure differences in treatments. 

There are many papers I have co-authored on AV HMI. Primarily, they explore Trust in Automation and Interface Design for Transition of Control (Manual to Autonomous and back). This needs communication to the driver with the aim of improving the UX. We explored various modalities of interaction, like sound, haptics and visuals. 

I worked at NASA after they applied for a H1B visa. I started to work at AMES facility in Mountain View, until Nissan was able to also apply. NASA visa is easier from a process stand point, as government bodies do not have a cap on H1Bs. The two are different types of visas. I shifted to Nissan as the part time pay at NASA was not sufficient, but I did value the opportunity to work at NASA. 

How did you get your first break?

I was working on a project for Renault at CDR (Center for Design Research) Stanford. The Renault team then hired me to do the same type of research for them full time. Renault is part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance and hence Nissan North America applied for an H1B. I got it in the second attempt. Until then I was still on my F1 OPT. When it expired, unfortunately I needed to leave Renault, but was fortunate that NASA worked out. 

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Filling in shoes by forecasting needs. In my case, nobody told me to work on the driving simulator. I saw a need and was proactive.  

Challenge 2: Learning new skills. I did not know Javascript programming. I learnt along the way by taking baby steps. 

Challenge 3: I am from India, and a work visa has always been a pain. Even now after 8 years here, I am still always on the fence. This has been the biggest source of stress for me. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work at Renault-Nissan Alliance Innovation Lab on how Voice Interaction should be built for a good UX. 

I focus on reading research papers, building studies, analysing data and updating my thinking

A large part of the job is figuring out what to research, influencing decision makers, acquiring the budget, building prototypes (lo and hi-fi), designing a study, inviting participants, data analysis and reporting. 

What is it you love about this job? 

There is always something cool that surfaces from the research and it is cool to prove it with data. 

How does your work benefit society? 

For the most part, my work improves safety while driving, through HMI that is working with human behavior and not against it. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I worked with a startup in the valley to build an UWB (Ultra-wideband) sensor for the car to detect if a baby or pet was in the car. This was to alert parents who left a child behind and accidentally lost track of time. About 35 babies die in the US each year because of this. The sensor I worked with showed promise to detect life on board , enabling us to alert the parent. Besides building out the proof of concept, I also tested it in various conditions. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t stress, keep following whatever gives you passion and talk to people about it. If you have done the work, what you talk about will automatically grab their attention. There is no other short cut. 

Future Plans?

I am thinking of taking my experience out of the automotive field now and be part of something more impactful. I am not sure what yet, but know that I want to work more on Voice Interaction as novel technology improvements are made everyday.