Finding the seeds lying beyond our imagined future

Dr. Lucian Gheorghe

PROFILE

Born in Romania, Dr. Lucian Gheorghe lived in Bangladesh, the USA, Israel and other places before coming to Japan in 1998. After earning a master’s degree in computer and systems engineering from Kobe University’s Graduate School of Science and Technology in 2005, he joined the Nissan Research Center in Atsugi, Japan, where he was involved in research on visual support while driving and driver-assist systems. He also worked on measuring the burden drivers have by using brainwaves as one means of measurement. In 2011, he went on short-term assignment* to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where he conducted research on Brain Machine Interfaces. After returning to Japan in 2014, he formed a team that contributes to automobile manufacturing from the perspective of brain activity measurement. In 2015, he became Senior Innovative Researcher (SIR)** and earned a doctorate of science from EPFL. * Short term assignment system: An overseas assignment program in which employees are sent overseas with the task of achieving project objectives in line with the project to which they are assigned. * Senior Innovative Researcher system: An original Nissan employment system that aims to bring together researchers from a broad area both inside and outside the company to strengthen development abilities and research new technologies. Exceptionally talented people from inside and outside the company are hired on temporary contracts for three years.

Exploring Novel Directions, Producing New Added Value

The automobile industry was a key component in Japan’s period of high economic growth and has brought pleasure and richness to people’s lives over many years. Today, however, the industry is entering a time of major change. The Nissan Serena minivan, a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous technology that maintains vehicle speed and a set distance to the vehicle ahead while driving in a single lane on highways, went on sale in 2016 in Japan. In the near future Nissan aims to achieve semi-autonomous city driving. Meanwhile, the demand for electric vehicles will continue to rise and the technology for connected cars is developing at an accelerated rate.

Over the past decade the world has seen a succession of rapidly evolving automobiles. During that period, Lucian Gheorghe has been looking even further into the future and reaching out toward what he sees. “Our mission as Senior Innovation Researchers is to discover how we can provide added value for future automobiles and bring to reality things that no one has yet imagined,” he says.

After joining the Nissan Research Center, Gheorghe was involved in applied neuroscience research to achieve a balance between driving pleasure and safety. To advance that research, he took advantage of Nissan’s short-term assignment (STA) system to join EPFL in Switzerland as a guest researcher. He became an SIR soon after returning to Japan.

SIRs can receive highly competitive incentive-based compensation when achieving good results, but also face the prospect of their contract being terminated if they do not. “Several steps are involved in research,” says Gheorghe. “Some research focuses on technology that will be on cars five years from now, and some research looks ten years into the future and sets a course for achieving real-world products in that time. My field lies beyond that. I come up with ideas to resolve problems by identifying the essence within the flood of information in today’s world, flexibly combining it with other types of information, and connecting various findings. High-risk high-return SIRs take on problems that no one has yet been able to solve, and need to be able to define future commitments and targets.”

Understanding Brainwaves to Design a Human-Automobile Relationship of “Super” Comfort

Developing driver assistance technology by measuring drivers’ brainwaves (Brain-to-Vehicle, B2V)

The value that Gheorghe seeks through research does not change. Through his research, he wants to help create automobiles of the future so that all drivers can feel the driving pleasure he experienced when he drove a Fairlady Z for the first time at age 18. The pursuit of driving pleasure is something that I never tire of, no matter how long I am involved in it,” he laughs. One line of research he has been deeply engaged in -- including during his time at EPFL -- is “super individual adaptation” between humans and automobiles using brain-machine interfaces.

The sensation of comfort differs with each person. Take family members who have lived together for many years and have often been in the same car together. Even then it is common for one person to feel uncomfortable with another family member’s driving. They may think “he applies the brakes too late” or “she makes turns too suddenly,” says Gheorghe. “The style of driving that is comfortable for one person will differ from that of other people. Even the same person will feel different car movements to be comfortable depending on whether he or she is in a good condition or not. I have worked for many years to understand this by trying to synchronize the car movements that lead to feelings of comfort with brainwaves, researching technology that will lead cars operating in ways that is always comfortable by accumulating this information. We say it is ’adaptation to the individual’ when a car detects the driver’s physical condition while driving, based on information from sensors attached to the seat and steering wheel and installed cameras. When the person gives voice alerts, what I am talking about is ’super individual adaptation.’ If we can create a system that checks brainwaves to identify comfort that not even the driver is aware of and provides appropriate support, the desire for a certain ‘experience’ from a Nissan vehicle will be one of the things people consider when selecting a car to buy, along with features such as the shape of the car and its interior space. If we can provide that experience, I imagine people will want to drive more every time they get in the car and develop a deeper attachment to it.”

An Outstanding Team from around the World

“I am a catalyst.” This is how Gheorghe describes one of his roles as a researcher, because he creates a rapid development research environment to bring researchers into projects and inspire the engineers.

“For example, this cap that measures brainwaves is an original. We developed it with a Spanish business venture. When necessary, I fly overseas to contact researchers or research institutes to add them to our team. This is one advantage of being an SIR. Even in cases when it would normally not be possible to move forward without obtaining approval from several superiors, SIRs, working directly under a vice-president, can soon begin collaborating with people both inside and outside the company. People with special competencies are needed to pick out things that cannot be seen and bring them to a place where they can be visualized. I think being able to search for these people worldwide is a huge plus for research; and also helps expand Nissan’s global network.

Gheorghe’s team is spread out all over the world: the USA, Canada, Germany, Spain, UK, and Switzerland; covering numerous nationalities. The team also maintains relationships with outside researchers just as if they were team members. This enables them to actively share thoughts about the research and keep a fast pace. “Team members are brought together by the same drive to take on challenging ideas—problems that I think we should be able to solve. They bounce ideas off each other and move ahead.”

Researching Technology That Links Reality with the Future One Imagines

“What I am looking for is not innovation that makes just an incremental step from existing technology, but disruptive technology that opens the way to an age beyond autonomous driving; something that will mark a turning point for a new technology. Some things have the potential for realization in the future but current technology has not caught up. These things are flagged for the time being. So, I think my achievements as an SIR are simply that I have been able use brain science to identify a series of research areas that contribute to the form of new automobiles for the future. Our research team will take on these things and make them more tangible in the coming years. I will continue to initiate research toward the future,” he says, eyes on the distance. “Ideas for making the cars of the future constantly come into my mind. It takes considerable time before research yields results and enables a new type of mechanism or a new car with added value that previously did not exist. I do believe that findings from research that explores the future and then a further future beyond that is the kind of research that will also lead to the development of technologies that can be made available in the near-term.”

Based on an interview carried out in May 2017.

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