The Researcher as Catalyst: Building the Future of Driving Pleasure

Mr. Lucian Andrei Gheorghe


(Based on an interview carried out in October 2013.)

Lucian Andrei Gheorghe was born in Romania. He joined the Nissan Research Center after earning his master’s degree in computer and systems engineering at Kobe University’s Graduate School of Science and Technology. His research since then has focused on vision-related processes while driving and driver-assistive systems. His work on brain-wave-based workload evaluation, a means of assessing the burden of driving on the driver, took him to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland on the NRC’s Short-Term Assignment (STA) program. There he is investigating brain-machine interfaces.

* STA (Short Term Assignment): STAs are a overseas assignment program in another country with a specific task or mission to support projects.

The First Experience of Driving Pleasure

Born in Romania, Lucian Gheorghe encountered his first computer at age 9. The IT world fascinated him immediately, and he began learning programming languages. His interest in artificial intelligence inspired him to come to Japan for his university studies. After earning his BS and MS at Kobe University, he entered the NRC.
“When I was 18 I drove a Fairlady Z for the first time,” says Gheorghe. “It was then that I learned true driving pleasure. Since then, all my work has been connected with that driving pleasure.”
When he interviewed with the NRC, he made a presentation proposing research on new interfaces to support the driving task. “After I joined the NRC, I brushed up my concept together with my colleagues and superiors. In less than a year we had a prototype up and running. This was when I knew that I was in an environment that fits well with my scientific interests.”

Brain Research as a Way to Enhance Driving Pleasure

“I want all drivers to feel that getting behind the wheel is fun. It really bothers me that there's a rising number of young people who don't know that pleasure,” says Gheorghe. “But how can we support the driver in order to achieve that driving pleasure at the same time as safety and peace of mind? One answer to this lies in our research on the human brain.”
In 2011, six years after joining the NRC, Gheorghe took advantage of the STA program to go to Switzerland. There, he is pursuing his work under the supervision of Associate Professor José del R. Millán at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a leading center for research on brain-machine interfaces.

Reading Drivers' Brain-waves to Forecast Their Actions

Gheorghe had an idea: “To provide a better driving environment, it would be ideal to know the condition of the brain in real time.” For example, he explains, “Take a driver who's changing lanes. Before he performs the steering operation to do that, a decision-making process takes place in his brain. And before that stage, the brain has detected some situation that prompts the driver to think of changing lanes. If we can ascertain all these stages from the brainwaves being produced, we should be able to create a system that supports the driver in advance of the actions he takes. The goal is to develop cars that can allow someone to think, ‘When I drive a Nissan car, it's like I become a better driver.’”

A Flexible Approach to Research—and Its Outcomes

Gheorghe explains how he views his role at the NRC: “My job goes only as far as considering whether our research results will lead to real-world products or not. But as we continue our research and build up a body of results, the possibility arises that the technologies we develop will make it into other products. I call these outcomes ‘research byproducts,’ and I think one of my skills is identifying these byproducts through looking at my work from all angles.”
Advancing his brain-wave research, for example, “might make it possible to come up with a way to support driving pleasure by having the act of driving itself improve a person's mood,” Gheorghe notes. “There are all sorts of possibilities here.”

Connecting Essential Ideas for New Solutions

“Our world today is overflowing with information,” Gheorghe observes. “Being able to pick out the truly important parts—the essence, if you will—is a vital talent for a researcher to have. I feel that my own strength lies in capturing that essence, combining it flexibly with other information, and connecting the thoughts to produce all kinds of results. To create ideas that solve the problems we face—that is my mission in life, I believe.”

A Note to Prospective Researchers

How does Gheorghe see his role as a researcher? “I'm a catalyst. There are many types of researchers. I'm the type who constantly seeks to pursue new research that will create new values. And to keep that research moving forward quickly, I try to get outside scholars involved in my work, to stimulate the engineers on my team, and to create the best possible research unit.” He is thankful for the environment that lets this happen: “One of the greatest things about the NRC is the way it lets an idea man like me do his thing—the chance it gives me to try out new concepts.”

A Stimulating, Global Group to Work With

“The pace of life is slower in Switzerland. Even though the country has produced all those magnificent timepieces, you don't have to spend all your time looking at your watch like you do in Japan,” laughs Gheorghe. He is enjoying his days in Lausanne, along with his family, who are accompanying him during his stint there.
Step inside the laboratory, though, and the atmosphere is very serious in this world-leading doctoral course. “There are brilliant people here from India, Spain, China . . . all over the world. Our common interest in the functions of the brain has brought us together, and the work we do is most challenging,” he notes. “So when it's time to relax, we go skiing or snowboarding, or climb mountains to refresh ourselves. We make sure to flip our switches all the way to off."

Based on an interview carried out in October 2013.