Fulfilling your childhood dream is not an easy feat, because it takes a lot of planning and determination to transform the dream into ambition and make it a reality by navigating complicated choices and hurdles on the way !

Darshan Rajagopal, our next pathbreaker, Automotive Engineer at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis), works on Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) domains which aim to increase the safety of the vehicles.

Darshan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being strongly influenced by the evolution of automobiles from a complete mechanical entity to a synergy of engineering disciplines, mostly with the advances in vehicle electronics.

For students, don’t follow others. If at all you want to follow something, follow your dreams !

Darshan, Your background?

My family is originally from Kerala, but currently we have settled in a small town called Coonoor, near Ooty (when I say this to people the reaction that I get almost every time is WOOOW! And before you ask, YES, it is a privilege to live in a place like this). I was born and brought up in Coonoor where I completed my schooling there. My father owns a Jewellery, my mother is a retired Accounts Officer from BSNL and my brother is a Dentist practicing in London. 

Talking about interests that shaped my career, there’s always a question that a child gets asked by their family and other elders: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” You can hear most kids say doctor, pilot and the other popular career choices. 

But even as a child, the only answer to that question I had was “I want to build cars (a kid’s version of saying that I wanted to work in an auto OEM).” I used to strip the toy cars and reassemble them part by part. When one of the parts broke, I used to fix them with just paper and charts. 

Even as a child, nothing got me as excited as talking or fidgeting with even actual cars.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Even as a kid, I had unwittingly chosen a career path, so it was a no-brainer that I was going to choose a line that has something to do with automobiles. The only dilemma I had was whether to choose the niche field of Automobile Engineering or the one with a wider scope – Mechanical Engineering. After giving it a few days of thought I chose to pursue a Mechanical degree for my Bachelor’s graduation from Karunya University because as mentioned earlier, the wider scope it had. I realized that I can learn from the basics and then switch to the Automobile field in the later stages.

Throughout the course of my bachelor’s, I was intrigued by the evolution of automobiles from a complete mechanical entity to a synergy of engineering disciplines, mostly with the advances in vehicle electronics. This encouraged me to pursue my Master’s degree in Mechatronics from VIT University.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

As mentioned in the previous section, the automobile sector has gone through major evolution with increase in electronics and automations. Most of the changes cater to the aesthetic and safety requirements of a vehicle. I started my Master’s in the year 2015, this was the same time period when the concept of self-driving or autonomous cars was gaining traction. 

This gave me a heed in the advances of this field, particularly related to Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) systems which was a stepping stone to the Holy Grail – Autonomous Mobility. 

The main influences I had in the field were the lead developers of self-driving technology, Waymo (formerly Google self-driving car project) and Tesla. 

I was particularly fascinated by the CEO of Tesla, Mr. Elon Musk, especially the way he built an electric car company that was a trailblazer in a market that was almost completely IC engine based. And to build another completely new self-driving technology within it was an achievement that might define the future of the entire auto industry. 

I personally believe that electric is the way to go and with the driver assistance systems to go with it to ensure absolute safety.

This drove me to dig deeper into the sector and to build a career around self-driving technology.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

As a part of gaining experience in the auto industry, I was able to obtain an internship at Volvo Cars during my Bachelor’s. Volvo being a luxury brand had various driver assistance features in their cars even before the technology became mainstream in India. This is where I got initial insights into the technology that still is the base to most ADAS solutions. I got to see features like Automatic Braking and Park Assist in action and learn their working principles that still helps me in my current work.

Now that I am in a place where I said I wanted to be even as a child (to work in an OEM), I wish I could say it was all an elaborate master plan that led me here (insert smiley face). But, honestly it wasn’t that simple though. There were few complicated choices and hurdles on the way.

A situation where I had to face conflicting priorities arose when I completed my Master’s graduation (in 2017) and had to choose careers. I had two opportunities to choose from, 

1. A well-paid job at a reputed IT firm with a generic job description. 

2. A relatively low-paid job with a start-up (where I also did my Master’s internship) in my core field. 

If I were to choose the first opportunity, I would be working in a well-known firm that was willing to pay as per Industry Standard for my completed Degree. However, the given job description was not in accordance with the course that I had completed. The Job Description was similar for all engineering streams and there was limited to no opportunity for me to work on my core interests. 

If I were to choose the second opportunity, I would be working with a start-up that would not be able to pay higher salaries initially. The company was working on exciting technologies (self-driving and electric vehicles), where I could directly make use of the skills from my graduation and adhere to my core field and interest. 

What guided me through these conflicting priorities of money over passion was my interest towards automobiles since my childhood days, which motivated me to take up Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s in Mechatronics.

This thought process helped me choose the second option and thereby I chose to work at a start-up called “Arobot” (later acquired by Singapore based MooVita) for the initial years of my career. I was able to make use of my skills in a field that excited me, which helped in betterment of the firm and developed my skills simultaneously. 

The company, with collective effort, was able to provide a good pay for all the employees that stood by them through difficult times and I was able to work in the field that excited me. I worked for a short period of time in Singapore where the company had launched a road ready electric self-driving car. 

MooVita is an A*STAR spinoff company – The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore’s leading government agency dedicated to fostering world-class scientific research and talent for a vibrant knowledge-based economy. 

Here I had worked on two types of autonomous vehicles that were launched based on their application. The first type is where a regular road vehicle is retrofitted with sensors and processors which help in driver assistance (ADAS) and autonomous driving. The vehicle had to undergo numerous trials and necessary tests and obtain permissions by the government. After passing them, we were one of the first teams to deploy Autonomous Vehicles on Singapore public roads where one of our vehicle was tested by Honorable PM Mr. Lee Hsien Loong.

The second type is a custom built electric buggy. This can be used to transport people and goods within closed surroundings (school/college campus, office/IT parks, etc.). The vehicles follow a preset route and should not be driven in public roads.

The primary sensor package included a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR)/Camera for vision and GPS/IMU for positioning and navigation. A data fusion principle is used to make sense of the raw sensor data and convert them into vehicle motion through actuators (brakes, steering etc.). These sensors act similar to our human senses like vision, touch, perception and memory which helps us walk and move.

In the future rather than retrofitting vehicles with self-driving technology, vehicles will be manufactured (say Tesla) with built-in hardware with regular software upgrades even after purchase like map and sensor firmware updates.

And then in 2019, I got a message through LinkedIn saying that there was an opening at an OEM for the experience that I had. Now that I was one step away from reaching my career goal, it sure was nerve wracking, but the experience (both technical and life skills) that I had gained through my past job helped me get through the interview process and land a job at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

How did you get your first break?

As mentioned earlier, my first break was with the start-up that I had done my internship with. I was already working on a part of the company’s product for my Master’s project. When I completed my post-graduation, I continued working with the project and with them for two more years as a full time employee.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The main challenge that I faced was how I would make a transition from the startup to an OEM. The field that I work in is still in its nascent stages and most of the OEM’s, especially in India, haven’t started working on them on a large scale, even though there are several startups working on them.

The fact that I was able to start working in the field as soon as it gained relevance in India, gave me the maximum years of experience in the field in the Indian scenario.

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

I currently work at one of the largest global auto OEMs, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis), which has 16 leading auto brands (including Jeep and Maserati among others) under it.

I work on the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) domains which aim to increase the safety of the vehicles. An example of ADAS technology is, the vehicle automatically braking when a sudden obstacle appears and the driver can’t react quick enough.

The skills required for this sector is the knowledge of the electrical architecture of a vehicle, and modelling of the system requirements. I acquired most of the skills through work experience in both my past and current company.

A typical work day will consist of going through the ADAS and HIL testing requirement documents, followed by the actual testing procedures and compiling the results. These final results go to the Michigan Headquarters or to the specific region where the vehicle is being launched.

I could never pinpoint a specific part that I love about the job. For me who always wanted to open up and analyze what is inside a car and to play with them from my childhood, this is a dream come true of sorts and I am revelling in the joy that every moment brings.

How does your work benefit society? 

As mentioned earlier, my work focuses on ensuring safety of the road vehicles. This is about reducing the casualties to the minimum even in case of a major accident. Whether it be in ADAS or HIL testing, what we ensure is that the vehicle would not fail which ensures maximum safety to the passengers inside and outside the vehicle.

I don’t think there is a bigger inspiration for a job than being able to save lives and reduce the number of vehicle accidents, especially in very accident prone road/driving situations as in India.

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

One scenario (this might be long, please stick along!) which is still memorable, came with the startup company that I previously worked at. One of the devices that the company builds is an ADAS product, a ‘Forward Collision Warning Device’. The two primary challenges among others that we had to overcome was completing the product successfully and then being able to advertise the product.

Even though the product-building phase had its own challenges, with the entire team contribution, the process was successfully completed. The most challenging part that I had to face was to get the product into the market after its completion. Since we had a small team, apart from the technical contribution, I took up the marketing task too.

The motivation behind taking up the advertising role was my desire to know the requirements of the clients directly. Thereby I could gather knowledge about real market needs and trends. This in turn helped me in providing updates to the product as per the market requirements and to plan for subsequent product lines.

One of the potential customers that I had talked to was a Tier 1 Automotive supplier (I am not supposed to name them due to agreement norms). We being a start-up were new to the product market. Therefore, my first challenge was to familiarize the company first before marketing the product. Other well-established ADAS device makers were approaching the supplier simultaneously and I had to underline the advantages our device would give them over the other products.

What appealed to me the most was the confidence of building a product that was able to keep up with the active competition. I had to go on visits to the supplier several times to convince them. I had to meet different teams from the same organization so that all major decision makers were familiar with our company.

The primary reason that made me persist with this particular supplier was my research on their client base. They were the primary suppliers for major Automobile OEM’s in India, specifically Chennai. Therefore, I was confident that if I were able to prove the efficiency of the product to them, it would be easier to get to the wider OEM market.

After several discussions and product demonstrations for a couple of months, I was able to convince the supplier that our product was superior. Since the well-established ADAS makers were international, they had relatively lesser local service. I was able to prove to them that apart from our superior product quality; we had better after-sales service too. As a result, we were able to obtain deals from the OEM’s through the Tier 1 supplier.

Even though there were challenges in the initial discussion stage, I learnt never to underestimate our achievement just because we are facing a bigger competition. One of the main reasons for being successful was the ability to meet and convince all the teams that I met. Persistence and patience had helped us get through.

In addition, at the technical level, I was able to learn that the product had an even bigger value when the “Collision Warning” feature was supported by the “Lane Change Warning” feature and an attractive User Interface. This helped us build better subsequent versions.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to the students would be (and specifically based on my experience is) to have a clear goal. Choose what excites you the most, whether it is sports, academics, flying to the stars and beyond (!) or any other field that you are interested in.

The key then is to work towards it. It will never be an easy path, but when you know exactly where to go, you will eventually reach the end no matter what hurdles you have to face.

After all, as the famous quote goes – “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” – Marc Anthony

Future Plans?

My future plans are to work within the OEM industry to build better and safer cars. In addition, as the industry moves towards electrification, I would like to play a role in not only building safe cars for humans but also cars that are safe for the environment. The faster we move on from fossil fuels to electric vehicles the safer we make our surroundings. 

And somewhere in the future, who knows, we might even see a car that has my name/logo as the vehicle badge (one can always dream!).