Ex–NASA scientist Maarten Sierhuis believes that the key to getting people comfortable with the idea of autonomous driving is to make drivers feel at one with their cars, yet still in control. “You’re building this intelligent entity that has to cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate with humans,” Sierhuis says of his work. That’s why he won’t yank away the driver’s steering wheel (like Google has), and why he’s adding features bit by bit–the Infiniti Q50, for example, already automatically keeps the car centered within street lanes. In January, he helped forge a partnership with NASA–an agency that knows a thing or two about operating robotic vehicles from millions of miles away–to help Nissan perfect its autonomous navigation capabilities in urban areas. Fully autonomous (but optional) driving is already being tested in Nissan’s best-selling electric car, the Leaf, and by 2020, the company hopes to introduce fully autonomous driving capabilities to its Infiniti and Renault brands.
Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?
The honest answer is the shower. I try to create a space where it’s safe, nobody can bother me, and I don’t have to think about anything else other than what’s in my mind. The shower is one of those places.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
We’re in Silicon Valley. And Nissan has an alliance with Renault. Renault is in France. And Nissan headquarters is in Japan. So we are constantly trying to find the right time to conference call. Last night, I had a meeting till midnight.
What surprises me is the number of topics I deal with in one day: building facilities to the toughest research problems, to dealing with my startup. It just amazes me. I always thought I was bad at multitasking, but I’m dealing with so many things in one day. It actually surprises me that I can manage it.
How do you keep track of everything you have to do?
I don’t use to-do lists, to the frustration of my friends and my partner. I’ll tell you why I don’t use lists: If I can’t remember it, it’s probably not important. I have a wonderful assistant who keeps track of my calendar, but that’s about it.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
I don’t believe in heroes. But one person that really inspires me is Temple Grandin. I think she has turned her disability into something so inspiring. All of our conference rooms are named after important scientists. I made sure that one of the conference rooms was named after her.