Autonomous vehicles are going to make our life simple, but they will also fundamentally alter the way we function as a society !

Abhijeet Behera, our next pathbreaker, PhD Researcher at Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, conducts research on autonomous trucks with the aim to make the freight process efficient and safe.

Abhijeet talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his undergrad and master’s research experiences that fueled his ambition to pursue a career in Automotives, specifically in vehicle dynamics.

For students, research in futuristic technologies is tough, but the satisfaction of working on something that the world will see after 5-10 years is unparalleled !

Abhijeet, Your background?

I grew up in an Indian middle-class family in a coastal city known as Paradeep located in the eastern part of India.  I did most of my schooling in that place. I was an average student. However, I was hyper-active in extra-curricular activities, whether it was sports like Cricket, Badminton, Chess or activities like Karate or playing instruments like Tabla. I had achieved accolades in most of them. For example, I have passed the certification for being a Tabla teacher. I have also won in the state level events of Karate. It’s not incorrect to say that I was more interested in extra-curricular activities than academics. However, in my 7th grade, there was a turning point i.e., a shift of focus towards academics (roughly around 12 years old). I realized that it is not okay to be bare minimum in this competitive world. Also, the sacrifices made by my parents motivated me to achieve more. I started putting extra effort into academics. It was a hard call to focus on academics by giving up the extra-curricular activities. But what helped me were the qualities that I had learnt by getting involved in these activities. One such quality is dedication towards a certain task, which I think is even helping me now. Slowly, I came to understand that both extra activities and academics can be managed simultaneously if planned properly. This is in fact what I did and was quite successful in my attempts. With this positive momentum, I migrated to a new place (Cuttack, a vibrant city in Odisha), because of the job transfer of my parents. This was during my 9th grade. I was among the highly motivated and talented students. I was not prepared for this change. I stumbled, I stood up, I failed, I stood up again. But I never gave up. I was even active in chess (one of my hobbies) during this time. I had hit headlines in the local newspaper by qualifying for the national level. But unfortunately, I could not play because of the matriculation board exam. I passed the matriculation exam with a perfect score. For my high school, I went to a new place (Bhubaneswar, capital of Odisha). This time, I was prepared mentally. I had a smooth start. This is where I roughly decided my future. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Mechanical Engineering from NIT, Rourkela and MSc in Automotive Technology from Eindhoven University of Technology. I am currently a PhD Researcher in Autonomous Heavy Vehicles at Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI).

I decided to choose the science (PCM) stream. Fast forward to the next 2 years, my performance in the high school board exam was extremely good. I scored perfect scores in Maths and Chemistry. I received special recognition from the then education minister of India (Smt. Smirti Irani). Unfortunately, my rank in the Jee Advanced Exam was not enough to fetch me a premier branch in premier IITs. I got an option of mining engineering at IIT Dhanbad in the last round of seat allocation. However, I was not interested. Not getting into IITs is the biggest regret of my life even today. But life must go on. So, I decided to join Mechanical Engineering in a premier NIT, NIT Rourkela. I can certainly say that the last 4 years of my schooling life acted as a catalyst to what and where I am today. 

I enrolled in Mechanical engineering stream during my bachelors. I still do not know personally why I chose that stream. Infact, I think I was very immature to make that decision. However, intuitively, I was motivated by my parents. Their thoughts were driven by the fact that it is a generic stream and can fetch me a job in any sector. Although the computer science stream was something that I would have liked to consider at that time, the IT sector was in a downward trend. This persuaded me not to opt for computer science. In general, I (my parents also) was job centric while choosing my stream. 

The 4 years of engineering life in one of the reputed institutes actually helped me to discover new dimensions of my life, specifically leadership qualities. I joined the formula student club of the institute in my first year. This club makes formula type cars for national level competitions. I spent 4 years of my engineering life in this club. I started as a fresher and ended up leading the club in multiple competitions. Managing competition deadlines, managing different kinds of personalities, learning new technical things in a stipulated time and making theories work in real life are some of the things that I learnt during this phase. Not to forget, I had to focus on academics as well. All in all, this was a test for me to judge how well I could manage my time. As I think now, everything went really well. 

I did my masters in Master of Science – MSc, Automotive Technology from Eindhoven University of Technology and am currently doing my PhD in Autonomous Heavy Vehicles at Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI)

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

At each and every part of life, there are certain people or instances which drive you towards your goal. During my bachelor’s, I was motivated by a couple of seniors to do research. And this is how I was attracted towards research. During my masters, I had a combination of both instances and people who influenced me. I gained a lot of research experience during my masters. At the same time, I was with a group of friends who were all doing a PhD. This further bolstered my decision to do a PhD. More importantly, I feel in a PhD, the motivation should come from inside. The instances or people are just initiators to your thought process of doing a PhD. 

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

My journey from an undergraduate student at NIT Rourkela to a PhD student at Swedish Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) was not straightforward. In a nutshell, it involved stream changes, a couple of company experiences and obviously, research exposure.

As mentioned earlier, my decision to pursue a career in automotive was sparked from my experience in the formula student club of my undergraduate institute. During this time, I was involved in designing and manufacturing of different aspects of the vehicle. For example, I worked with powertrains in the first year, after which I gained experience with vehicle dynamics. Although I lacked some of the basics related to it during that time and I am not an expert even today, it motivated me to think out of the box. This laid the foundation for my first research paper. Even though it is not directly connected to my work in the formula student club, I got the essential technical knowledge from my experience. For example, the paper concerned vehicle dynamics aspects of two wheelers. A basic model for a four-wheeler vehicle is a two-wheeled model. The two wheeled model is  something that I used in the paper and four wheeled model is something I used in the team. I presented my research in the United States. For the same, I was awarded for the best technical paper by SAE India. 

This further fueled my ambition to pursue a career in automotives, specifically in vehicle dynamics. In India, when we talk about mechanical engineering, it’s not automotive centric. This created a lot of hardships for me when I was attempting to build my profile suitable for master’s in automotives. Nevertheless, I kept on refining my profile. For example, I did an internship at Volvo Trucks during my undergraduate studies. My work in the Volvo was related to drivetrain of heavy vehicles. Although it was not related to vehicle dynamics, the internship was a nice experience to explore other aspects of a vehicle. This in fact contributed to an all-round improvement in my knowledge of vehicles. This is something that the admission committee looks for in a master’s application. It is always better to have an overall idea of a given field. Master’s is very specific compared to bachelors. So if one has an all-round idea about certain things, he/she can be really flexible during the masters in choosing a specific specialization. This is exactly what my thought process was.

Right after my bachelors, I went for a masters in automotive technology at TU Eindhoven, The Netherlands. I chose my dream specialization of vehicle dynamics and control. This is where I was introduced to autonomous vehicles through course projects. I developed a great interest in that area. Soon, I realized that vehicle dynamics and control are the fundamental pillars of an autonomous vehicle. I decided to specialize in them before I worked with autonomous vehicles. And I took courses during my masters to perfect my knowledge in these fields. The courses had interesting projects associated with them which were connected to actual research going on. And another thing that I really liked about these projects was that these projects have a practical significance. This results in easy visualization and better understanding. For example, in one course, we controlled a quadcopter. Since we see the mathematics connected to a real object, it is easy to understand how specific terms in the equations affect the motion of object. 

Following the coursework, I did an internship and my master’s thesis at Siemens based on these fields. Apart from bolstering my technical knowledge, I made many professional contacts and learnt about European work culture. In some ways, these experiences attracted me to work in Europe. During the internship, I worked on an interesting aspect of tires which involved vehicle dynamics and control. I worked on testing and validation of the famous Magic Formula tire model but with temperature effects. I took this tire model developed by siemens and created an interface for it in a vehicle multibody software to understand the effect of new tire model on a vehicle. This was an essential step before it could be rolled out in the market. This experience sharpened my knowledge of vehicle dynamics. My work became a part of a research publication. This is where I got the confidence to do a PhD. My master’s thesis was next to this internship which I again did with Siemens. I tried to improve on the existing models used for vehicle ride comfort simulations. Although I was unsuccessful in it, I was able to find some interesting phenomenon occurring in the tire. This in fact was the sole reason why I was unsuccessful. But during this process, I learnt a lot about tires.  Following my master’s thesis which enhanced my knowledge of tires, and with a good idea of vehicle dynamics and control, I was ready for a career in autonomous vehicles. This is where I am now. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job, which is a PhD position at Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI), through research experience. I used to read research papers which were published by researchers at VTI. I got genuinely interested in the organization and the type of research they do. And when I found their advertisement related to my background, I applied and got selected for the position that I am currently working on now. To give a small introduction to VTI, it is an independent and internationally prominent research institute in the transport sector affiliated to the government. We have teams doing different kinds of research whether it may be related to air, rail, road and water. So, I am working as an industrial PhD student with the vehicle systems and driving simulation division within VTI. The division in which I am working at VTI has a wide range of competencies. For example, currently, we are working with autonomous vehicles, train and road-vehicle simulators, and tires. We are going to work with airplanes soon.  

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

I faced a lot of challenges, academic and non-academic in nature. A common way to handle them is to stay calm. I used to panic and make spontaneous decisions. Slowly, I realized never to take any spontaneous decision. I have understood the importance of taking decisions in a neutral state of mind. I will give an example. Searching for PhD positions after my masters was an arduous journey. In fact, it is a challenge with a lot of sub challenges. A spontaneous response to these challenges tells you to become less ambitious and make a common application for all. Unfortunately, it does not work although it is extremely simple. This is where I had to keep my senses active and not give up. This is easier said than done. You don’t realize it until you face it. And it is not a one step process and may take months to get to the results. You must remain calm and composed during this phase. I personally think that these processes make you stronger mentally every time you face them and prepare you to face harsher challenges in future. 

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

As a PhD researcher, I am working with autonomous trucks. In a broader sense, it is going to make the freight process efficient and safe. The drivers who drive long haul trucks generally get tired because of the long duration of driving. So, making these vehicles autonomous is a way to ease the load on them and make the entire driving process smooth. My task is to take positive steps in this direction by making these trucks autonomous without compromising the performances of these vehicles (trucks). 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

I am at a very early stage of my research. I have realized from my past experiences that you can never assign a definite direction to research. That is why you can never have all the technical skills required for the project. For example, I am now involved in data analysis with a domain knowledge in vehicle dynamics. I have a good amount of experience in vehicle dynamics but I am learning how to work with data. I think more than technical skills, one must have the right mindset. This is a skill that has helped me to learn and implement new things. 

As I am working as a PhD student in collaboration with the industry and university, every day is extremely interesting and challenging. Almost half of my day goes in attending mandatory courses, and the other half involves working on my research. Although a proportionate balance is difficult to attain between them, it is something that I will probably learn during this process. And this is what makes it challenging.

What is it you love about this job? 

People say that research is tough. And I agree. But you get confidence when you accomplish tough tasks. This is what I like in my job. Every day, I face some technical challenges, whether it may be related to simulation or theories. But, when I solve them eventually, I feel happy. I think this sense of satisfaction is something I love and it is only possible because my job provides me with such kinds of opportunities. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Autonomous vehicles are going to make our life simple. Imagine, you are having some work to do while driving a car. So how about just allowing the car to drive by itself and you do your work. Isn’t it cool? Indeed it is. But, it is a very distant future. I personally believe that working with autonomous vehicles is a hype that has been created lately. It is going to fade away soon. It has now become more of a publicity stunt which has attracted a lot of funds. I think we are moving very fast without introspecting the impact that it will have on society. But I am equally sure that autonomous vehicles are the future. It’s just that we have to consider a slow integration of these vehicles into society. So, definitely, we need good minds working on it. These days, people are working on fundamental aspects of autonomous vehicles. So, a big task for the  upcoming generation should be on the implementation aspect of these vehicles. 

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

Personally, I enjoy each one of my projects. So, every project is memorable to me. I get to learn new things from each of them. But if I have to pick one, it would be my master’s thesis. An interesting thing is that I consider it a failure as I did not get the result that I expected. But that is what research is. This is a classic example, where I learnt how to deal with failures in research. When you fail, you find a new way to test your hypothesis in research. You fail again, you do the same and the process continues. I knew this but I never realized this until I faced it myself. Although I was upset during that time because I did not get the intended results, I am happy now that I learnt some different aspects of research. This mentality actually helps me in my PhD life. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

No matter where you are, what you do, always give your best. Be dedicated to what you do. It’s always how you achieved a certain thing that matters more than what you achieved. This is something that will give you happiness in the long run. For example, it does not matter to me now if we won any medals during my time in the formula student club during my bachelor’s. What I remember is the hardwork and dedication that we put into it. I think we should always remember the process rather than the results. This is how we can improve our present and better our future. I always follow the words of an American race car driver Dale Earnhardt: 

“It’s a never-ending battle of making your cars better and also trying to be better yourself.”

Future Plans?

Over the years, I have learnt to live in the present and make short term rather than long term goals. Therefore, my focus right now is just to complete my PhD successfully. More importantly, my aim is to enjoy this PhD where I am getting trained to be a good researcher.