Meet Premkumar Natarajan, Perception Engineer

Oct 31, 2019 · 4 min read
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Prem joined Ike in 2019 as a Perception Engineer on our Software Team.

Tell us about how you got into the automated trucking industry?

I have been working on automation technology for the last six years. Like most people, I started with cars and was on the research side. The industry was overly optimistic in the beginning. People would say, “We’ll have this ready in five years.” And then people started realizing how hard the problem really is.

The obvious first product of this technology is going to be trucking, because the domain is really limited and highway driving is far less complicated than driving on urban roads. That’s what got me to move into the automated trucking industry. I am excited to see a product that I’ve contributed to on the road relatively soon.

Tell us about the transition from research to what you’re doing now at Ike.

Research was less tangible though very important. You’re exploring all of these unexplored areas and there’s a lot of uncertainty about the path that you choose. It was a nice segue into building actual products. Research exposed me to all the hard problems in the field. Having that knowledge helps me avoid pitfalls when building a product at an engineering company like Ike.

What excites you the most about your job?

The fact that we are building something that doesn’t exist in the world yet excites me the most. We’re not just working on the next iteration of something.

What will be different about the trucking industry in 10 years as a result of the work we’re doing at Ike?

It will be much safer. We still see about 10 or 11 deaths per day on highways. The goal is to bring that number down substantially. The economy in general will be stronger, because of efficiencies in freight. 70% of all goods in the US move through trucks. That’s a lot. And if we can increase efficiency, that will improve productivity in every sector.

Ike believes automation has the capacity to improve everyone’s lives if approached thoughtfully and responsibly. What does this mean to you?

I see automated vehicles as I see the aviation industry. Aviation is very complicated with a lot of components working together and they’re all safety critical. When you’re up in the air and something goes wrong, everything goes wrong. It’s the same with a truck that’s 80,000 lbs traveling down the road. That’s one of the reasons I joined Ike. The way Ike sees it, we have to be absolutely sure that whatever we build is very safe before we put it on the road. So I know that whatever I build will go into a well thought out product that’s been carefully designed, developed, and tested.

We’re not building demoware. We’re building something real for the world.

How will automated trucking impact people who don’t work in the trucking industry?

Costs will go down and that will impact everyone whether you work in the trucking industry or not. If you will be on a highway, trucks will be safer and therefore you will be safer. But interestingly, if automated trucking technology is actually the first automated driving technology, there will be a lot of lessons for other, more complex driving problems and it will hopefully accelerate the development of automated vehicles on urban roads.

Why should people who are interested in working towards the future of automated trucks work at Ike?

Ike’s emphasis on safety. A lot of companies think about safety, but the way we’re building our product actually has a lot of emphasis given to validation. We aren’t going on the road unless were sure it’s safe and we’ve proven it. There’s a lot of noise in the industry and everyone feels the need to show something. But we practice restraint and that’s reassuring. The way engineering is structured is built entirely on safety and validation. We’re working on components that will provide results in the long run not the short run. It’s not like we’re just developing a bunch of features and then going to try and figure out how to piece them together. We have a real end product in mind and a clear roadmap to get us there. That’s the big differentiator.

When you’re not working your day job, what is one of your favorite things to do?

I love driving, which is ironic since I work on automating vehicles. But I love a nice scenic drive. My favorite place to drive is Skyline Boulevard. The views are amazing. And I’ve started picking up climbing.

What would you be doing if you didn’t work at Ike?

I would be teaching physics to high school students. I love teaching and physics is my favorite subject. I think high school or middle school is where you can have the most impact with people. At that foundational stage.

What’s something your coworkers would be surprised to know about you?

I won a dance competition when I was 7 or 8. It was a classical Indian dance called Bharatanatyam. It’s only surprising because people who know me know that I absolutely cannot dance.

What is something that surprises you about yourself?

Hmmm. Hard question. I am used to building things really fast. After joining Ike, I was surprised I had the restraint to move slower, take my time, and not feel pressured to show results quickly. The not-so-glamorous part of the work — the building blocks that may not be as visible but pay off in the long run — is what is really valued here. So even though I’ve been conditioned to think otherwise, I have been surprised at my own patience.

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