Columns: Self-driving engineers staying here

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz

Mention the words “self-driving vehicle” and the name conjures up futuristic images of driverless cars zooming in and out of highway lanes, sand dunes and city streets like in science fiction movies such as “Star Wars,” “Minority Report,” and “Blade Runner.”

But with the rapid advances in automotive technology and the expert training of some of the brightest young engineering minds in the country right here in Michigan, the mass production of self-driving vehicles may no longer be a thing of celluloid dreams.

The future is closer than you think — thanks to Michigan ingenuity.

Thousands of visitors to this year’s North American International Auto Show were only able to catch a glimpse of prototypes of self-driving vehicles on the showroom floors. But behind the scenes, students from the Oakland University School of Engineering and Computer Sciences are playing a critical role in not only helping to create these vehicles of tomorrow but also in the expansion of this robust new sector of the automotive industry and the Michigan economy.

A 2016 report in Business Insider magazine pointed out that by 2020, there will be 10 million cars on the road with some level of self-driving capability. And that car manufacturers and technology companies are racing to develop a safe, fully autonomous vehicle.

The report noted autonomous vehicles have the potential to resolve a major public health problem — traffic fatalities. With more than 40,000 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. in 2016, it’s estimated that self-driving vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent. It will also allow entire populations restricted from driving activities due to age, physical infirmities, finances, or other reasons, new opportunities for safe, reliable transportation, and thus, easier access to critical resources, such as doctors’ offices and grocery stores, or even a ride to work or school.

The growing popularity of this emerging technology likely means more states will be investing in infrastructure repairs and the expansion of their roads and highways in anticipation of a need to support this coming generation of new vehicles. It also means universities like ours are being called upon to train the next generation of engineers to make self-driving cars. And I’m proud to say we already have a head start on most of the competition.

Because we are in the heart of the automotive industry, our students have easy access to automakers and suppliers. Couple that with a very innovative engineering and computer science educational philosophy that emphasizes hands-on learning, internships, and partnerships with industry leaders, we have been able to offer a world-class engineering program that has been very productive for our students, the university and the state of Michigan.

Among our industry partners are Fiat Chrysler, Ford Manufacturing, ABB for Robotics and Automation, FANUC Robotics, KUKA Robotics, Aleris Research and Development and U.S. Steel.

The San Francisco Business Times identified Oakland University’s engineering and computer science program as among the top five schools in the nation in placing its engineering graduates in the cutting edge self-driving car industry. We rank only behind Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, University of California–Berkeley, and the Illinois Institute of Technology in all engineering jobs filled. And ahead of such great engineering programs at schools such as Purdue University, San Jose State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan.

We graduate between 300-400 students a year and of our 2016-2017 graduating class, more than 76 percent had completed at least one internship. And those internships translated almost immediately into permanent jobs. In fact, 99 percent of all our engineering and computer science graduates find jobs upon graduation. And 97 percent of those jobs are in Michigan with a median starting salary of roughly $65,000 a year.

That means not only are we producing highly skilled professionals in the states’ most vital industry but, unlike many of our competitors in this sector, we are keeping our talent home. Thus, with Oakland University contributing more than $500 million dollars to the states’ overall economy in 2015, our economic footprint in Michigan is strong.

We are in the midst of a transportation revolution arguably no less dynamic and impactful than that following Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line. And thanks to local ingenuity and teaching excellence, Michigan will continue to lead the nation in automotive innovation.

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz is president of Oakland University.