Fast Forward: Oakland University is at the forefront of the self-driving car industry


The self-driving car concept has long been herald as a “thing of the future,” explains professor Ka C. Cheok, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science and John Dodge chair. 

“The concept of self-driving cars has been around just like flying cars. But the technology was plateauing in the 80s 90s,” he says. Then, in the late aughts, computer technology accelerated faster than anyone could have predicted, he explains. “That prompted the self-driving car technology. Now the whole world is working on self-driving cars.”

As demand for self-driving vehicle workers grows, OU is in the driver’s seat when it comes filling jobs with formidable talent. The San Francisco Business Times reports about 1.75 percent of all engineering jobs in the self-driving car industry are filled by Oakland University graduates.

“It may not seem like a big number, but it puts us among the top five schools placing graduates in this field,” says SECS dean Louay M. Chamra, Ph.D. “I am very proud of our students and their accomplishments.”

Dr. Cheok says location has been a major factor in making OU a top five school for self-driving vehicle workers.

“We are close to many industries, and we train our students well in types of systems education and engineering,” he explains. “From my department, we have a lot of practical projects and labs that makes them. So students hit the ground running, making them preferable hires for companies.”

The need to develop the technology is driven by business. “If you are successful you are making money. So the new technology is coming and many companies are trying to work on it and get it to market and make big business of it,” says Dr. Cheok.

“In order to make a business of it, they need workers like OU students who understand the business. So many of our students easily join the company or they get hired. We filled the spots better than many other schools.”

Other schools on the SFBT job placement list ahead of Oakland include Carnegie Mellon University (3.4 percent), Stanford University (2.94 percent), University of California–Berkeley (2.76 percent) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (1.84 percent).

Universities on the leaders list behind Oakland include: Purdue University (1.65 percent), San Jose State University (1.56 percent), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1.56 percent) and the University of Michigan (1.56 percent).

Further, the SFBT story cited the skills companies are looking for in the self-driving car industry. They included: C++ programming language, machine learning, algorithms, C programming language and distributed systems. These are skills engineering students learn to recognize early on in courses and competitions such as the IGVC competition, where students compete to design, power and construct an intelligent ground vehicle that can follow lanes, detect obstacles, and follow waypoint navigation.

“When we drive we look ahead and we catch a view of the back and we remember what we saw. But the computer has cameras hand cameras going around the vehicle looking sideways forward everywhere, then it combines all the information into one,” explains Dr. Cheok. “Therefore you can see multi-view, multi-sensor surround view. The car knows more than you in that sense, including blind spots, what is coming at you and at what rate.”

Still self-driving cars need capable engineers to put the technology together, he says. Jobs in the self-driving vehicle space include those with automakers, auto suppliers, major tech companies and startups.

“We have been developing many of our classroom offerings over the past several years to mirror the needs of the automotive industry in general and also those of the self-driving car industry,” says Dr. Cheok,”We are teaching all of these highly sought-after skills to put our students in the best possible position for good jobs after they graduate.”

OU graduates won’t have to wait for the future to find employment. “It’s already here,” says Dr. Cheok.