ASHLEY MICKS, PH.D.

Using video-game-like simulations, this model-based engineer is reshaping the future of driving

By Kathy Sena
Illustrations by Wesley Anne Soriano (Micks) and Remie Joffroy (Smart Cars)

MF: How do you use simulation to help develop autonomous cars?
AM: At Ford, I’m working on projects to train cars to recognize objects such as road signs. The goal is to create virtual images and videos, alongside data from virtual sensors, and save everything in a big database, much like taking screenshots while playing a video game. Then we show all this to the car and tell it what to look for so it can learn. After that, the car takes a hands-on exam, which might mean that the car looks at more pictures and sensor data, and tries to correctly mark all the things we wanted it to find. Or if we were training it on how it should behave—not just what it should see—the car could control a video-game version of itself, driving around in a simulated city and showing us it can make good decisions.

MF: You describe your work as very creative. What prepared you for that way of thinking?
AM: I graduated from MIT with a double major in aerospace engineering and theater. Engineering and art are both creative things, and both require good written and verbal communication and the ability to work as a team.

MF: What attracted you to the automotive industry?
AM: In school I interned at NASA and Boeing, including work on the Space Shuttle’s heating system. It wasn’t until later that I considered applying my degree to the automotive field. I talked with a Ford recruiter at a career fair and learned Ford was doing some really interesting things at its Research and Innovation Center related to autonomous driving.

MF: Are any autonomous driving technologies currently used in production vehicles?AM: Cameras can be found in production vehicles as part of lane-keeping features and back-up assist features, among other applications. Radar and ultrasonic sensors can also be found on cars today, used for adaptive cruise control and parking assist features.

MF: What do you see down the road for autonomous driving?AM: There are two different aspects: One is driver-assisted technology, such as highway assist and parking assist, which is already available. The other is autonomous driving, which will be available in the not-too-distant future—and to be part of this creative engineering team is pretty exciting.

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