When Simon Verghese moved east for a postdoctoral spot at MIT, the UC Berkeley-trained physicist figured on being back in California before too long, but then Waymo started calling.
“I thought it would be two years,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.
Two decades and three children later, Verghese was still at MIT’s prestigious Lincoln Laboratory, working with NASA, the Department of Defense, and the US Navy. Few offers could have lured him away from his work on various sensor systems for aerospace applications.
The one that did the trick came in 2016 from Waymo. The Alphabet autonomous mobility company that started life as Google’s self-driving-car project wanted the professor to lead development of its lidar, the laser-scanning technology that enables vehicles to navigate complex environments as well, or better than, human drivers. The tech that just might be the biggest challenge in self-driving cars.
Verghese already had the expertise; lidar had been his thing for almost a decade. The technology has been around for 50 years, but has taken on new importance in the past decade thanks not just to self-driving cars, but also for relief missions to survey damage after natural disasters, such as the 2010 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti. (Verghese and his MIT team supported flyovers of the region that monitored damage with lidar units, which have advanced from being enormous systems to becoming small enough to put on planes)
What convinced Verghese to make the move was Waymo itself.
“Half the reason I left the East Coast was to experience Waymo culture,” he said. “It celebrates small teams taking initiative. It’s not a top-down, command-and-control-type place. But everybody still manages to stay aligned and move quickly.”
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