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A day in the life of a driverless car software engineer

By Sonya,

November 1st, 2018

BY EFIMIA PANAGIOTAKI, SOFTWARE ENGINEER AT STREETDRONE

 

I test driverless cars for a living but I very rarely get into the driver’s seat. While a traditional driver might check a car by taking it round a test track, my job involves a lot more time spent programming code.

In a nutshell, my job is to make sure that autonomous cars will be able to safely drive themselves.

It’s really important we get this right. We’re already seeing driverless taxis in operation in Singapore and I’m certain driverless cars will eventually become the norm on roads all over the world. The industry has come a long way in a short space of time, but there is a long way to go, and I’m proud to be part of the journey.

For me this job came from my lifelong passion for cars. I was always interested in motor sport – mainly all-terrain vehicles and high performance racing. When I was growing up, I spent my spare time either driving round race tracks or in garages working on cars.

What I really love is pushing a vehicle to its limit. So it was a dream for me when, after finishing my studies at National Technical University of Athens, I landed a job working in Formula 1.

During my stay in Zurich, I was working full time in Formula Student Driverless at Akademischer Motorsportverein Zurich (AMZ) Driverless from ETH, Zurich. It was during this time I had my first taste of autonomous vehicles, working as a Software and Hardware Engineer in a world-class team.

I decided to leave Formula 1 because I find the world of driverless cars fascinating. The next stage of pushing a car to its limit is to make it driverless, so joining StreetDrone was a no brainer.

My job varies day to day, but the goal for the team is simple – get the vehicle fully autonomous. Right now, we’re working on the ground-level software. This is effectively the foundation of the car, everything else is built on top of this, so it’s crucial to get it right.

My days consist of brainstorming ideas and experimenting with tricky coding. Then it is off to the workshop to put the talk into action, tinkering with the car, testing out different ideas, and making sure the car is safe and running consistently.

The next stage is hitting the test track, running around with laptops seeing what works and what doesn’t. While a lot of the job involves writing code, test days are the most fun. It must look very weird from an outside perspective – when we set the code running, I have to jog behind the car while it’s moving, with my laptop connected with a cable! For me, seeing a car racing around a track with no one inside is something truly special.

What’s even more exhilarating is testing the code while sitting in the driving seat of the car. This means plugging the laptop into the dashboard and making sure one hand is in reach of the emergency stop button in case anything goes wrong!

What is exciting is that there is no handbook for this job. No one yet knows how to make an autonomous car drive and be 100% safe at the same time, there is no recipe for autonomous vehicles, so my job requires a lot of research and exploration.

I also feel hugely privileged to have got into such a new industry so early. The Government estimates that the UK market for Autonomous Vehicles will be worth £28bn in 2035 and more than 37,000 people will be directly employed in the sector. The salary for a software engineer is on average between £26,000 and £61,000, depending on your experience.

It’s still early days, but I’m excited to be one of the first people in the UK to work in this industry.

To read more on what skills will be in demand when autonomous vehicles hit our roads, take a look at our recent report, Out of the Slow Lane.

Efimia’s article has also been featured in the Daily Mail Career section on 1 November 2018.

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