Scientist’s NASA experience is helping Nissan with autonomous drive technology

The Nissan Research Center (NRC) attracts global talent as a centre for open innovation by sharing its qualities and providing information to the public.

Brian Joss – Dr Maarten Sierhuis, the director of the NRC in Silicon Valley, is using his experience at NASA to work on autonomous drive technology for Nissan.

Sierhuis came to the US  in 1989 from the Netherlands and worked for IBM and NYNEX Science and Technology until 1988. After earning his PhD in artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, he worked for NASA and Xerox PARC. He spent 12 years with NASA where he developed a computer language underpinning intelligent systems for use in robots, spacesuits and NASA’s Mission Control Center. In 2013, he joined Nissan where he heads the Nissan Research Center in Silicon Valley and leads multiple teams of researchers working on autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles and human-machine interaction and interfaces.

Maarten Sierhuis: working on autonomous drive technology for Nissan. Picture: Motorpress

Sierhuis started working at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley in 1998. After 12 years there, he  went to Xerox PARC, where he served as director and ran research on multi-agent systems and human-machine interaction. It was at NASA, though, that he created much of what he’s putting to work for Nissan today. “We started with development of a simulation language that allowed us to model human behavior and multiple people working together. We were looking at how people might live on Mars and work with people back on Earth, as well as autonomous systems, including robots and smart habitats on Mars. We started first simulating this with our language, but once we started running this language in real time it also became a programming language for autonomous systems in genera,” Sierhuis said.

“We helped design how robots would work on Mars with people on Earth. After this success, we were asked to automate flight controllers in NASA’s Mission Control Center for the International Space Station. The final project I did at NASA used my computer language to automate a flight controller for the ISS. This system went live in 2008 and it’s still in use.

“To build the autonomous system for a vehicle on Earth is really like building a robot that drives 80 miles an hour very close to other robots.

That is very different from Mars, where there are not that many people – at least not yet! Many issues come up when you think about humans interacting with each other and with robots, because the car needs to be on the road with other people – pedestrians, bicyclists and other cars. The idea of multi-agent modeling becomes key: knowing what everybody is doing, so that the car knows not only what it needs to do itself, but also its relationship with others on the road. In urban areas, we have to deal with pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, cars, animals – the whole spectrum of interaction becomes a very important study. The work that I did at NASA is very relevant in this context.

“At NASA, I researched how humans and robots would work together on Mars in the future. When Nissan asked me to do that for vehicles on Earth, it was very difficult to say no. I have a particular view on how humans and autonomous systems should work together, and I really appreciated that people at Nissan had a similar idea. Nissan believes that mobility is for the good of society; that’s one of the reasons I decided to come here.

It’s exciting to think about a society where the right mobility system is used for the right purpose at the right time. We’re going to have trains interacting with shared vehicles that can seamlessly take me from work to home to school to pick up my children. Whatever I need to do in my life will be seamlessly integrated with mobility services at different places. I don’t believe that public transportation should go away. By integrating our vehicles – our trains, our planes, even our bicycles together into a society where we have more space for parks and beautiful landscapes – we’ll have more space for people.

Nissan’s vision of virtually zero fatalities and zero emissions is really a great motivator for doing research to move in that direction. Autonomous technology can be applied not only inside the vehicle, but also in the cloud, in trains and in other transportation systems. We should always be efficient in the way we move around and interact with others.”

*Extracts from an essay published in September 2016.

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