Across the University of Michigan’s campus there are creative and compelling examples that bring the research missions of the university and industry closer together. The role Ryan Eustice plays in both of those realms highlights how faculty can be a critical force for change.

Ryan Eustice would like to help make driving safer. And he’s got a pretty strong team to do it.

Serving as both faculty in the College of Engineering and as Senior Vice President of Automated Driving at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), Ryan Eustice has his feet planted in two different worlds. That makes his impact all the more important and considerably increases what he’s able to accomplish. Having a dual appointment in industry and academia is rare, but one that Ryan finds will benefit everyone.

He shared his role and vision with us recently.

Tell us about your job:

I was attracted to the Toyota position for an opportunity to be with a team and program that will have a lot of impact in the world. TRI has had really strong people come together intellectually, and we have the resources and backing of Toyota. This has been reflected in the size of the team, the facilities to build test cars at scale, and operational support for testing vehicles on the road. TRI allows me to amplify what we’re able to do with that. If what I can do with U-M is x, what I can do with TRI is 100x in the staff, speed, and global impact when automated vehicle technology lands in a product. That directly affects the number lives it touches and hopefully saves by getting this tech out on the road.

Shifting role at U-M:

This is a unique role between U-M and industry in the opportunity to create this position. I continue to maintain a cohort of Ph.D. students – I’m not teaching but advising Ph.D. candidates.

U-M has become a big draw to industry for robotics and AI talent. These students are being recruited heavily. The potential risk for the university could be a void in who’s training the next generation of students and building the talent pool. This joint appointment allows me to maintain my education role to create future technology stars so they can apply it in academia or industry.

I get to live in both worlds and share what I know about what’s cutting edge and serve as a mentor and guide in the next frontier. I also have a lot of perspective in how industry operates, what the pace is like, and what research looks like thanks to this dual academic and corporate experience. I can easily speak to students about both.

What is your research focus:

Mapping and navigation in mobile robotics. My current research applies that technology to indoor mobile robots. My previous research worked with sensors and lasers to build maps of the environment. However, it was missing a semantic layer of understanding objects, a human level meaning associated with that map. We’re doing research in my group now to combine more recent techniques with deep learning, computer vision, and maps. By fusing them together, we strive to build semantically meaningful maps so robots can interact with people at an object level.

On the structure of this role:

It’s a new frontier. The university wants to make an impact in the world; this dual appointment is a unique opportunity and it gives us all the chance to increase that impact.

If we look at how U-M wants to remain a premier academic institution and have relevance in this new age, we need to look beyond traditional models where federal funding has provided resources for academia and research. As those dollars have declined, the university has been creative and has increased its focus on industry as another way to secure resources and work on hard, interesting problems.

This is such a close engagement with an industry partner; I think this is more the new normal for the university as we go forward. This happens to be one of the early cases to chart the way forward. And it’s a learning experience for both industry and the university to find the best models that make this work.

On how he got here:

I was originally interested in aerospace engineering, and I accidentally found a program at MIT working on underwater robots that were exploring under the polar ice caps. I thought this was Discovery Channel-type work; I didn’t know you could build a career on this. Once I figured this out, I got a Ph.D. in it.

All technology –  mapping, navigation, sensing, computer vision – that’s the bread and butter of any mobile robotics system. For me that was the spark that united everything. That is the unifying theme no matter what I’m working on, and it has me really excited about what I do.

How does TRI connect with U-M:

TRI’s level of engagement goes beyond my dual role by also significantly funding research. TRI has a pretty large presence funding academic research at Stanford, MIT, and U-M. We have strategically placed facilities near those campuses and created a sizable research and development budget for each institution.

With that relationship, TRI holds an open call for proposals, like the federal government might. Faculty can respond to those calls or submit ideas, and, following review, TRI selects those that further our shared goals. With the type of work we can fund here at U-M, we expect some of the work will result in big innovations that will have really broad impact in the field.