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E-news Online September 2010


Rodman Scholars Design Smarter, Safer Vehicles through Volkswagen Global Ingenuity Program

By Zak Richards

Photo Courtesy of Rodman Scholars
Rodman Scholars visit with a Volkswagen research group developing an autonomous city car called “Stadtpilot” or “City Pilot.”
Photo Courtesy of Rodman Scholars
Rodman Scholars pose for a picture at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, immediately after their visit with the Hon. Patrick Murphy, U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

This summer a group of 17 students from the U.Va. Engineering School’s Rodman Scholars honors program traveled to Germany on an engineering mission: to design a vehicle that allows drivers to use the Internet without losing focus on the road.

As part of the Volkswagen Global Ingenuity Program, the students worked from the car company’s Wolfsburg/Braunschweig research and development facility to solve the design challenge. At the end of the program, they presented a design for a system that integrates a customized Internet application into vehicles.

Their finished design for a smarter and safer Internet-equipped vehicle was well received by their German engineer hosts. But the completion of the research was just one of the trip’s success stories. Throughout their two weeks in Germany, the students took advantage of opportunities to immerse themselves in the country’s culture by working alongside students from the nearby Braunschweig University and to take excursions to Dresden and Berlin. They visited a research facility for autonomous city cars that can drive by sensing their proximity to other cars on the road. They also stopped by the Transparent Factory, where VW’s luxury car, the Phaeton, is built.

To address the research problem, the students set up a think tank at the R&D facility. It was essentially a room with whiteboards, tables and Internet access where students could collaborate for long hours. Food was delivered to the room or consumed at a nearby cafeteria where the students went for breaks. For most of the two-week trip, they were working, sometimes late into the night. Daniel Amante, a third-year biomedical engineering student who was among those on the trip, describes it as a “monastic” endeavor.

The product of the think tank was a plan for integrating a modified form of the Internet that could respond to cues in the vehicle’s immediate environment and deliver relevant information to the driver. Based on a driver’s unique profile, the application would notify the driver whenever the vehicle was approaching a museum or restaurant that might be of interest to that person. Also, the amount of access to the Internet would be determined by the cognitive requirements of a given driving condition. Driving through a congested city street in the rain would limit access; a calm suburban street would allow for more.

The think tank allowed the U.Va. students to directly apply — in a real-world setting — the problem-solving and collaboration skills they had developed back at the Engineering School. The international aspect of the project heightened the importance of collaboration and solid communication skills.

“We’re all engineers, but we all have our own specialties,” Amante said. “Figuring out our individual strengths and accounting for the difference in our languages helped us structure our groups to facilitate discussion and progress.”

Achieving that productive and collaborative workflow took some time. For the first few days, the think tank interactions were contentious. Everyone had ideas, but there was a lack of unified movement toward a common goal. Success seemed out of reach, given the short, two-week time frame.

Then, after a reflective three-day trip to Dresden, the students were eager to get back to the whiteboards and hash out a solution to the problem. The change in momentum and agreement among team members was palpable.

In a congratulatory letter to the students at the end of the program, Dana Elzey, the group’s faculty advisor and director of International Programs at the Engineering School, described the shift:

“It felt as if someone had flipped a switch to ‘ON’,” Elzey wrote. “After long hours of frustrating uncertainty, conflicting ideas and lack of consensus, the tone suddenly changed from cacophony to symphony, and out of the chaos of ideas a coherent vision began to emerge. There was a collective sigh of relief, followed by a rapid reorganization into highly focused sub-teams.”

This international research project offered Elzey and the Scholars a unique bonding experience as they worked toward the common design goal. They were able to relate on a personal level and overcome organizational titles and relationships.

“Being in a strange environment and strange setting upsets your internal gyrocompass,” Elzey said. “In that condition of lowered defenses and heightened alerts, you’re open to new learning experiences in a way that is exceptional and very difficult to create in a classroom.”

Amante believes the experience will benefit him throughout the rest of his time at the Engineering School and in his future career.

“A lot of it comes down to group dynamics and figuring out how to structure groups based on each other’s strengths,” Amante said. “In this case, it was about as challenging as it could get. You are working with 20 to 30 people who don’t know each other, are from different engineering disciplines, countries and cultures, and you put them in a room and need them to do one thing. After that, getting four people to work together on a calculus assignment or write a program doesn’t seem so bad. ”

The Volkswagen Global Ingenuity Program was made possible with a gift of $500,000 from Volkswagen Group of America Inc. The money, which will be distributed over the next four years, also supports graduate fellowships at the U.Va. Engineering School.

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