Every engineer learns by reading books. Far fewer learn by writing them. But then, Karl Iagnemma (BSE ME ’94) has always followed his own path. After graduating first in his class at U-M with a mechanical engineering degree and earning a PhD in philosophy and robotics from MIT, it seemed that he could set his sights on whatever he chose. He chose to write.
“At Michigan, I had taken an English elective from a professor named Charles Baxter, who was a revered personality on campus. He had a big influence on me, he taught me to love writing and make it a part of my life.”
Iagnemma did just that, publishing “On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction,” a collection of short stories, in 2003 and “The Expeditions,” a novel, in 2007. The books were successful in their own right, but Iagnemma says the experience of writing them also informed the success of NuTonomy, the autonomous vehicle software startup he founded in 2013 and recently sold to Delphi.
While the path from fiction writer to autonomous vehicle entrepreneur might not seem obvious, it was a natural progression for Iagnemma.
“Writing a novel was incredibly difficult. And when you tackle a project like that, you learn to empathize with people who are doing hard things,” he said. “Writing books felt like the first act and this company has been the second act, and they’re similar in that they were both very difficult things that I didn’t know how to do when I started.”
NuTonomy, the company that he co-founded, grew out of work he was doing as a scientist at MIT. The company develops what Iagnemma calls the “brains” of autonomous vehicles, a portable software solution that can be factory-installed on any vehicle. It uses a rules-based system that teaches cars to make the thousands of decisions that we humans make behind the wheel. “We’re applying motion planning, deep learning methods that are among the absolute state of the art,” he said. “And we’re putting them on cars and testing them on the road every day to create a product that could save hundreds of thousands of lives. That’s exciting.”
For Iagnemma, working in the auto industry is about more than safety. A metro Detroit native, the car business is in his blood.
“My father worked in the auto industry and I interned at GM during a period when the auto industry was not a hotbed of innovation. Getting into a car felt like travelling ten years back in time. Today it’s the opposite – when you get into a driverless car, you’re experiencing some of the most state-of-the-art research in the world.”
As part of Delphi, Nutonomy plans to add more than 100 new employees. Its expertise will power Delphi’s planned launch of an autonomous taxi fleet in Singapore in 2019.
Iagnemma’s success in the autonomous vehicle space hasn’t dulled his urge to write – in fact, he says the process of starting the company has given him plenty of new material.
“It has been interesting to see the difference between the myth and the reality of starting a company,” he said. “There’s this fascination with the founder, this idea that they can see into the future. The reality is a little different – anyone can be a founder, but the actual work of building a company is really hard. It has been a really interesting experience and I’ve met a lot of characters along the way. And hopefully, I have at least one more book in me.”