Alum built foundation for career in autonomy at Illinois
In 1939, General Motors (GM) introduced one of the first concepts for a self-driving car at the World’s Fair in New York. This vehicle was radio-controlled and received signals from magnetic spikes embedded within the road itself. By the 1950s, GM’s Firebird prototype vehicles carried this technology, intended to be used for “highways of the future.”
These days, autonomous technology is even more advanced, and MechSE alumnus Bilal Mehdi is helping to keep GM at the forefront of the field by developing technology that will help pave the way for the next-generation of self-driving cars.
Mehdi joined GM after graduating from Illinois with a PhD in mechanical engineering in 2017.
“I had some exposure to the work GM was doing through an internship during the last year of my PhD, and since I found the work exciting, I was very much interested in moving forward with it,” Mehdi said. “The field of autonomous technology in general is one I’m proud to be able to work in.”
The internship introduced Mehdi to GM, but he was already very familiar with autonomous vehicles thanks to his PhD research. He worked on collision avoidance and trajectory planning for small groups of UAVs with his adviser, Professor Naira Hovakimyan. Although the application of UAVs and self-driving cars are different, they deal with similar underlying problems.
“The mathematical problems at GM are the similar to those I worked on during my PhD,” Mehdi explained. “[Working in] the Coordinated Science Lab gave me a strong foundation in research but also exposed me to working on real world prototypes rather than just doing math.”
During his degree program, Mehdi flew UAVs and completed difficult practical projects that could have been more easily done with a simulation. However, understanding the real-world challenges that could come up during implementation are the experiences he credits for giving him transferrable job skills.
For current students looking to pursue a career in industry Mehdi has two pieces of advice.
“If someone is interested in pursuing a career in a certain industry it is helpful if their thesis topic is related to that technology area,” Mehdi said. “Building industry connections is also very important, and internships can help with this.”