The autonomous vehicles industry isn’t limited to Silicon Valley — innovations are happening all over the world, from Austin, to Miami, to Boston, to Germany, to Singapore, and beyond. The Women in Autonomy in Detroit series spotlights women working on autonomy in one of the longstanding hubs of automotive innovation: Detroit. Each interview in this series is an opportunity to get to know one of our members in the Motor City and the work they’re doing for safer, more efficient transportation.
To kick off this series, we sat down with Melinda Kothbauer, a Robotics Engineer at May Mobility. Melinda works on an interdisciplinary and integrated engineering team that strives to discover and tackle challenges in autonomous driving. Melinda was first introduced to Women in Autonomy in 2020 and is a participant in our mentorship program.
What initially interested you in autonomous vehicles?
After one summer camp incident where I had to count Damselflies in a river for an ecology lesson, I discovered biological research was not my thing.
So when I arrived at the University of Michigan, I thought I was going to become a Chemical Engineer because my father was one. My Freshman year, I was taking an intro programming course taught by Edwin Olson, the CEO of May Mobility, where he talked about his research in autonomous technology. I got excited and started looking into the autonomous field on my own and, from a technical standpoint, I became absolutely engrossed in the academic research.
That’s when I really fell in love with autonomous driving technology.
How did you start working in autonomy?
I had some initial failures getting experience in the field - I was told that I didn’t have the skills they needed yet. I interviewed at so many autonomous vehicle companies, trying to get the experience I needed. Eventually, I was fortunate to get an internship at Hyundai Mobis. That summer, I worked in their advanced engineering department which focused almost solely on autonomous driving. Once I got the practical skills, I strategically chose classes that would focus directly on autonomous driving or classes I could adapt to fit my interests. In an Embedded System Course, I would think, “Okay, I’ll build an embedded system, but it’s going to be for a mobile robot that tries to navigate autonomously.” My goal was to create experiences that I could put on my resume but also demonstrated what I had learned and could talk about in interviews
What do you do at May Mobility?
When I first started at May Mobility, we were just launching our first site in Detroit and our small team was doing anything and everything that needed to be done. While working on a project that focused on building infrastructure sensing units, we would mount standalone units in environments to add redundancy and other sensing capabilities that were off-vehicle.
During that time, I worked to modify a prototype that was already developed and to make that prototype more robust, taking it all the way through the production timeline. A part of that was developing work instructions so we could outsource, and it was tedious. It felt not very fun, but it helped me realize how important that part was to engineering. I got to see what an incredible feat it was to take a prototype and make it into a real product. Understanding this process has been tremendously helpful in my day-to-day life. I can build a software system on my own, but it’s another thing to get it to work with the rest of our system, to make it robust, and to make it incredibly safe.
My favorite thing about May Mobility is that they allow us to explore the breadth of autonomous vehicles technology stack. I have worked on a huge span of projects. Right now I’m doing a type of trial and error, trying to figure out exactly what I am truly passionate about. Now, I am really focused on perception and how the vehicle understands the world around it. I’m also transitioning into a more behavioral module. It’s nice to be able to do both of those things and not have to commit to one for the rest of my career.
What aspects of your job have been positive/surprising?
As a new graduate, I was surprised when I understood how much is still unknown about autonomous driving technology. The field is in its infancy and companies are asking what the right way is to develop and test this technology. The goal is that autonomous driving is safe and actually makes people’s lives better. Learning that there is no right answer is a part of the job, to be on the cutting edge of technology, and to realize it’s up to me and all of us in this space to shape it.
What have been the advantages of being a woman in your role?
When I first started at May Mobility, one of my male coworkers confided in me that he was so happy I was there as the first female engineer on the team. My presence added a different nuance to the team that I was on. There is a downside to that because the breaking of norms is hard, but it ultimately brings better teamwork and better outcomes. I’ve seen in a direct, personal way, how my team members felt there was more of a personal connection to the work we were doing and that their emotions and personal lives could influence and inform the projects we worked on.
What are the differences of working in autonomy in the Detroit area vs. Silicon Valley?
I’ve never worked in Silicon Valley myself, but I will pull from my own experiences in Southeast Michigan. Because we are a hub for automotive development, we have access to this huge pool of knowledge and people and resources. Especially in terms of more traditional automotive methods like production. I think others see the value and are trying to get some of that influence in their company.
What types of challenges have you faced in your career? How have you managed those?
Change. Priorities are changing, business goals are changing, the technology is changing. Sometimes, it can feel overwhelming. I’m eternally grateful for the advice I have been able to apply from my mentor in Women in Autonomy.
That advice was that you, as an individual, need to reflect on your own goals and your own priorities. Ask yourself, ‘What is a deal breaker?’ Once you figure out your fundamental values, that line in the sand, then you can deal with changes. If it is something that you decided is not an acceptable change, then it’s easy to make a decision about how to go about it.
And when things change — because they will — try to actually understand why something changed. You have to have this sense of trust in your coworkers and company, to say that you believe people made the best decisions with the information that they had. Once you believe that, always reframe those conversations as seeking information rather than giving your criticisms.
How has mentorship influenced your career?
The mentorship has been really helpful in practical advice, like I mentioned above, but helped reframe how I think about my job. It’s really helpful to get perspectives from women who are further along in their careers, to see it’s possible, and that there are advantages to being a woman in the field. You experience some personal validation in both the good and bad things which happen in this industry.
What are your long-term goals?
I am excited to grow my technical depth, looking at ways that I can influence the systems I am working on or maybe publishing. I’m hoping to lead technical teams at companies who are actively developing autonomous technology. A big goal is to become a thought leader in the technical side of things.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter this field?
If you are interested in getting involved in the technical area, find something which excites you and do your own learning about it. Once you’ve found that, seek out connections in the industry to build a network. My network was largely built though school but once you have your initial connections, you can expand. Those personal connections will be very important to understand the options out there and to learn what problems exist which people are trying to solve.