Prepare Yourself for an Automated Future… Insight with Autonomous Vehicle Technology Consultant Tim Dawkins

Tim’s unique career has enabled him to work with a wide range of industry leading automotive, technology, defense, and motorsport companies on the cutting edge of vehicle technologies. He was most recently the regional Lead Autonomous Vehicle Technology Consultant in North America, guiding executive leaders at OEMs, suppliers, and technology companies in shaping strategies to ensure success in the autonomous vehicle sector.  He also previously served with the Royal Logistics Corps. Tim holds certifications in cyber security, machine vision, warfare, and counter terrorism.  Tim is an experienced keynote speaker with a specialty in ADAS, Automated Driving, and AI for Automotive Applications.

Mike:   Alright, we have Tim Dawkins on the line! So, Tim, you have a vast amount of experience in autonomous vehicle technology. And your most recent position was in autonomous car research and consulting at SBD Automotive. Can you tell us your story of how you winded up there?

Tim:   Yeah, it’s quite an interesting one really. I had a bit of an unconventional route to that position. But I started out with SBD Automotive, in 2012 they took me on as an undergraduate placement student in the vehicle security department for a year whilst I was getting my engineering degree.

I spent this time working on anti-theft research, working with things like steering column locks, immobilizers, smart key systems, and other anti-theft technologies at the time. Additionally, we tested devices for remote vehicle access and key programming.

Then when I completed my degree, I came back as a graduate in the vehicle security division for a little while after that. As the company grew and they expanded into North America I was given the opportunity to come over to the U.S. to help establish our office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So, I gladly accepted.

From there, I transferred into what was then known as our Safe Car division, working with active safety systems, publishing research on systems such as autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and other Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).

As the industry gradually evolved into automated driving, I got involved with a range of projects doing everything from bench-marking vehicles, doing research with consumers and focus groups, to even designing test sites, and visiting top secret facilities for companies. It was a very interesting journey to go on – I had to pinch myself at times to think, ‘Hey, this is really my job. This is really what I’m doing.’

Mike:   That’s great. I want to stop you right there. So, you went undergrad placement into this job and then to a grad degree – where did you go to school?

Tim:   I have a degree in Motorsport Engineering from Brunel University London. For those of you who don’t know London so well, it’s near Heathrow airport, just inside the M25.

Mike:   And when you were in school did you purposely target this area? Like you thought you wanted to work with cars? Autonomous? How did that evolve while you were in your first or second year in school?

Tim:   Entirely accidental. I remember when I first came into this motorsport program I really wanted to go into Formula One. But after a couple of years of doing all of the computational fluid dynamics and all of those other good things, I realized I didn’t quite fancy kicking off my career with a huge amount of CAD.

I remember one particular group project where we were tasked with creating a robot that followed a line around our lab.  I really, really enjoyed that particular task, and since then I’ve always had a curiosity for automation and machine vision. That was one of the first early activities where I thought, ‘Hey, I could probably do something with this.’

Mike:   It’s good to have a history like that. Because I know students who are new to school and wonder how do you get from the beginnings of school to being placed in a job. There’s a lot of mystery in there.

Tim:   Definitely.

Mike:   That’s good. Alright, so I looked at your bio and you might have already said a lot of this. Part of it said guiding executive leaders OEM’s supply and tech companies, shaping strategies to ensure success in the autonomous vehicles sector. You may have said some of that but what kind of guidance did you provide again?

Tim:   It was quite a broad mix – Essentially, I spent a lot of time helping companies figure out how to secure their position in this evolving ecosystem.

On the strategic end of the scale, this included helping companies come up with new products or services, or finding roles for their existing products and services to fit into the autonomous ecosystem. Sometimes this required finding the right partners to deliver successfully. We did quite a lot of startup evaluations for due diligence activities where we were asked to look at their technology offering, asking ‘Are they credible? Are they succeeding at what they’re trying to do?’

On the technical side there was quite a lot of hands-on testing. Frequently, people would ask us to confidentially evaluate their vehicles or their competitors’ vehicles. I spent a lot of time evaluating Tesla vehicles, because there was so much interest from our client base in those vehicles each time there was a software release.   When GM’s Super Cruise came out, we were one of the first to fully benchmark it and evaluate it from it a Human-Machine Interface perspective.

As an engineer I always enjoyed the hands-on side, but the strategic stuff was very enjoyable as well – I was fortunate enough to work up to the C-Suite level with executives from huge companies helping them define what their strategic position should be in the autonomous revolution.

Mike:   Alright, so turning into recent news, at the date of this interview, winter of 2018, in the States GM just announced they’re laying off 15,000 workers. And I believe the CEO who runs that has been known to lean down companies strategically to prepare for the future. And it seems like a really good move. What are your thoughts on that? Because it seems like FROM what you were just saying right now, I see the strategy in what you’ve done. We’re seeing it now in the news. Companies are pivoting and they’re looking towards this. What are your thoughts?  

Tim:   There’s certainly been a lot of chatter about how the autonomous revolution is the biggest thing to happen to cars since people stopped riding horses – the consensus is it’s really going to shake up the industry. 15,000 jobs is no small restructuring – this is GM acknowledging, sadly at the expense of some employees, that their future is connected, shared, automated, and electric.

I would not be surprised if other car companies were thinking very carefully about how they structure their organizations in the near future. Automated driving has significant impacts all the way down the supply chain, right down to your tier two or raw material suppliers. It will definitely reshape the sector – this is probably just the first step in redefining what the automotive industry of the future looks like.

Mike:   I agree. And I also am paying attention to these trends. They say it’s not going to happen quickly. It’s going to be slow. But steady. Of course you can’t just have things happen quickly and everybody’s automated in the year 2021.  But this is for real for lack of a better term.

Are there any courses or areas that you would say in college, school, or university, to take and get students prepared for the future in these areas?

Tim:   Absolutely. I know I would want to have strong words with myself to say, ‘Hey, pay attention more in these particular classes!’ One that stands out from any engineering degree is control systems – when I got my bachelors it was certainly a part of it. – and I’m sure you can dedicate your entire career to it. The fundamentals of automation are found here, starting out with transfer functions and things like that.

At the more advanced level, I’d say machine vision. Now is a great time even to study this field, and you no longer have to go straight to MIT to get a good educational experience in the field.  There are plenty of MOOCs (massively open online courses) from the likes of Futurelearn or Udacity that offer certificates in machine vision – I have a Futurelearn certificate in robotics and machine vision.

Another example is Udacity – their Self-Driving Car Nano-Degree is a really comprehensive program that builds real competence in artificial intelligence and autonomous driving.

Finally, sticking with the conventional engineering, for people thinking about going to college and what classes to take, I’d say engineering risk management.  Whilst it seems very dry and abstract at this level, this essentially the fundamentals of functional safety. There’s a real shortage of skills in that particular domain. So, if you can build a capability there than that will lend itself really well to a range of safety applications.

Mike:   That’s interesting. I’m writing notes as fast as you’re talking!  Can you expand on the MOOKS again to clarify for readers?  

Tim:   It’s Massively Open Online Courses – generally about the equivalent of a 20-40 credit degree module. They’re usually offered by universities via open platforms. I’ve used Futurelearn, there’s also the Open University, EdX, MITX – a whole host of online platforms from credible, global universities that are purely for online study. They’re great for somebody who’s either looking at adding new skills to their CV; or trying to get a head start in that particular subject before they go to college. I would always do them in the evenings after work just to kind of exercise my nerd muscles a little bit more.

Mike:   That’s awesome. I mean, I knew about the MIT courses but I didn’t know about open university. So, we covered the subjects in school that students could pay attention to for the future, very cool. The risk management course, I agree. I never thought about functional safety.  

On a personal level, let’s talk about success characteristics. It just seems that you’re in an area that’s very unique. What kind of success characteristics have helped you get where you’re at? Because I know I’ve interviewed a lot of recruiters and they talk about passion and persistence being important and sometimes job candidates hit some speed bumps for lack of a better term.  

Tim:   I think with autonomous driving as a field, the biggest thing, having worked with a lot of people in this sector – is that the people that are the most successful are the ones that have that insatiable curiosity about how things work – coming up with the bizarre problems that you want to try and solve, and thinking of the most innovative solutions. Equally, it’s one thing to be highly educated in a particular field of engineering, but in my opinion, you have to be able to pivot quite rapidly as well.

As the technology moves fast you have to be able to adopt new technologies, new capabilities, new ways of doing things. So the ability to apply your engineering mindset to a new field is also extremely important.

Finally, linking those two together, you really have to keep pace with this industry and have your finger on the button.  The industry moves so quickly that you’ve got to know what the latest state of maturity is for a given technology, who’s partnering with who, what the outlook is for a particular sensor technology, even what’s the latest GPU board offering. It’s a really fast-moving sector and you’ve got to keep on top of it.

Mike:   Yeah, things are moving quickly. That’s cool. That’s a lot of information

that we talked about and I want to keep this a brief. We talked about subjects that students should gather in school. What other suggestions would you have? Like if you could do it all again, a method that would get you to where you’re at faster. From someone whose been there done it, how could you streamline what you’ve done for someone else who’s thinking about a similar end goal?

Tim:   I’d say try and spend as much time as you can networking, attending events, and trying to get up close and personal with the technology. If you can try and get to see some demos.

I remember the first time I went to CES (Consumer Electronics Show), having already worked as a consultant for a few years, but the first time I went there to evaluate the autonomous vehicle launches, it completely blew my mind as to how mature the technology on show was and how competitive it was becoming. So, I’d say do whatever you can to get hands on with the tech – try and experience it, because that will tell you more about how the technology is executed and what the maturity is, than reading about it or blogging about it.

Whether that’s going to meetups or networking events, even trade shows, if you can get yourself a pass to CES I highly recommend that one – it’s quite rapidly becoming an autonomous vehicle expo. So, that would probably be my best advice. Try and ride the wave because it’s happening so fast – you’ve got to get on board with it if you want to have a career in this sector.

Mike:   Thank you that’s awesome – anything else you want to add? Any thoughts to wrap up?

Tim:   I’d say, if you’re considering the autonomous vehicle industry it’s a really cool sector. One that I’ve enjoyed working in immensely – I am a very curious person that likes to grow quite rapidly. It’s given me the luxury of getting involved and getting very hands on with a lot of cool technologies and different companies in this field.

 Mike:   That’s great. You’ve done fantastic work. And I want to thank you for your time.

Tim:   Sure!