The Art of Engineering: How Designing a Self-Driving Car Prepared Me for a Career at Ford

By | December 22, 2020

By Steven Lee, Digital Design Sculptor, Ford Motor Company

Design sketches for the Deep Orange 10 self-driving vehicle prototype.

I was only six years old when my family left South Korea and moved to Canada. Many things changed as a result of this big move — my father was a mechanical engineer and my mother was a school teacher, but both gave up their careers and made significant sacrifices for a new life. While the world and everything around me seemed to be changing, one thing that never did was my love for cars.

Whether I was comparing completely different vehicles or trying to spot differences between a new Mustang and the previous year’s pony, I was fascinated by the way cars looked and felt. Luckily, I was able to pursue that passion at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where I studied transportation design and got to play an important role as an intern in Clemson University’s Deep Orange program — which truly helped prepare me for my current role at Ford.

How Ford Helped Clemson Students Build the University’s First Self-Driving Car

Deep Orange is a two-year master’s program that provides students with the opportunity to design and build a fully functional vehicle from the ground up, and the 10th year of the program threw a curveball — help develop a self-driving car. While some engineering elements were already being refined by Clemson students before I came on board, there was still an important question to answer: What would this car look like?

That’s when the College for Creative Studies was enlisted to help bring the self-driving vehicle’s design to life, and I was given the opportunity to work on the program through an internship. At school, we had often talked about the emergence of new mobility solutions and now, I was officially tasked with bringing one to life.

A full-scale mock-up of the Deep Orange 10 self-driving vehicle prototype based on overall wheelbase and dimensions.

Understanding the challenge: As a student at the College for Creative Studies, designing a self-driving car presented a very different challenge than designing a traditional vehicle. Autonomous vehicles have sensors like LiDAR and radar that need to be integrated into their exterior design, among other things. Since there is no driver, designers can experiment further with their interior and exterior. The biggest challenge was creating a cohesive design that incorporated all the various sensing systems, while ensuring they were not obtrusive to the overall look.

Armed with dimensions for the wheelbase and the locations for occupants’ hip points, my team and I went to work on a design that would meet all of Clemson’s technical requirements while delivering the right experience for a potential customer.

Real-world experience: As a student, you might sometimes create only a scale model for a project, but typically we were left to our imaginations when it came to how our designs would look in the real world. In this case, I was working side by side with engineers on something that would become a real, functioning vehicle. There was a lot more at stake than in a typical student project, and every detail counted.

Steven Lee measures interior spaces at a Ford dealer as he researches how to design a self-driving vehicle prototype.

For example, mobility vehicles tend to have different proportions than traditional ones, so we began looking at how we could best serve customers. That meant measuring how much headspace we could provide when designing for 99th percentile occupants, identifying an optimal seating position and height — especially important since the interior had passengers facing each other to enable visiting and interaction. We even went to Ford dealerships to measure different types of seats to determine what would work best for our vehicle.

Eventually, we were able to design a spacious interior that would meet the needs of customers, deliver a fresh experience through the living room-style seating arrangement, and fulfill all the technical requirements specified by the engineering team.

Prepared for life at Ford: I was only a junior when this collaboration between the College for Creative Studies and Clemson began, but one of the most impressive things about working on Deep Orange was how well it prepared me for the job I eventually landed at Ford. Even as students, we approached working with each other every day with a sense of professionalism, conducting weekly meetings with Ford and Clemson engineers, presenting work in front of large groups of people, and making sure everyone was aligned with our overall objective.

This is all day-to-day stuff at Ford. Collaborating with working professionals — including modelers at Revolution Design Studios — inspired me to pursue a career as a modeler as well. I’ve wanted to work on cars my whole life, and it’s clear to me that the College for Creative Studies and projects like Deep Orange not only give students the chance to experience what it’s like to work at a real automotive company, but also provide them with the skills needed to thrive when they land their first opportunity.

The Art of Engineering: How Designing a Self-Driving Car Prepared Me for a Career at Ford was originally published in Self-Driven on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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