Finding the seeds lying beyond our imagined future

Dr. Lucian Gheorghe

PROFILE

Born in Romania, Dr. Lucian Gheorghee has lived in Bangladesh, 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 Nissan Research Center, where he was involved in research on visual support during driving and driver-assist systems. He also worked on driver burden measurements using brainwaves as one means of measurement. In 2011, he went on short-term assignment* at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where he conducted research on Brain Machine Interfaces. After returning to Japan in 2014, he started a team that contributes to automobile manufacturing from the perspective of brain measurements. 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. Serena, a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous technology for single lanes on highways, went on sale in 2016 in Japan. In the near future we are aiming to achieve semi-autonomous driving in the city. The demand for electric vehicles is predicted to continue rising 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 incentives when achieving good results, but also face the prospect of their contract being terminated in the case 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.”

Human-Automobile Relationship of “Super” Comfort Grinded out from Brainwaves

Through his research, Gheorghe has always sought the same set of values. He wants to 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. “Driving is fun, and it makes me worried that more and more young people don’t understand that pleasure. So what could I do to support drivers in a way that balances driving pleasure with safety and security? One answer was to study the way our brain works. I quickly lose interest in problems that have a clear path to resolution, but the pursuit of driving pleasure is something that I never tire of, no matter how long it takes,” he laughs.

Gheorghe thought that to provide a better driving environment, it would be useful to understand the state of the brain in real time. “For example, let’s say you are changing lanes. Before you turn the steering wheel to change the direction of your car, you should have made a decision in your mind. And before that, your brain must have sensed some circumstance that made you think about changing lanes. If these stages can be deduced from brainwaves, it may be possible to build a system that would give drivers appropriate support starting from before they perform any real actions.”

He says that with further progress in brainwave analysis research, we may be able to come up with the kind of comfort that people are not aware of at the conscious level, achieving a relationship of “super” comfort between cars and humans as we seek out various possibilities for a new relationship between cars and people in the future.

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 research environment of rapid development to bring researchers into projects and inspire the engineers.

“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 in picking out things that cannot be seen and bringing 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 to expand Nissan’s global network.

Gheorghe’s team is spread all over the world: USA, Canada, Germany, Spain, UK, and Switzerland, covering even more 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 up 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. There are also some things that hold potential for realization in the future but for which current technology has not caught up. These things are simply 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 bring them to more tangible forms in the coming years. As for myself, I will continue to initiate research toward the future,” he says, eyes on the distance. “Ideas for making the cars of the future come to my mind constantly. It takes considerable time before research yields results and enables a new type of mechanism or a new car with a set of added values 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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