CU-ICAR students stand around their BMW MINI prototype on a stage after the reveal.

CU-ICAR students premiere the Deep Orange 7 vehicle, a BMW MINI prototype.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

The world is at the cusp of one of the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruptions of transportation in history.

Within 10 years of regulatory approval of autonomous vehicles, 95 percent of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals, according to RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.

RethinkX predicts that by 2030 individually owned, internal combustion engine vehicles will still represent 40 percent of the vehicles in the U.S. vehicle fleet, but they will provide just 5 percent of passenger miles.

And Clemson is supplying the engineers that will help get us there.

“Right now we are at a tipping point,” said Venkat Krovi, Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation at Clemson University International Center for Automotive Engineering (CU-ICAR). “There’s this enormous demand for the next great product. We’ve created the demand but the supply of engineers still isn’t there. That’s where we come in, by helping create those next great minds.”

Deep Orange is a two-year program for master's students at CU-ICAR.

Graduate students work on a Deep Orange prototype at CU-ICAR.
Image Credit: CU-ICAR

With more than 400 automotive-related companies calling South Carolina home, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce, CU-ICAR is strategically prepared to support them.

At its 250-acre, strategically focused automotive and motorsports research campus, CU-ICAR offers a two-year program that serves nearly 200 students from all over the globe who are pursuing graduate degrees in automotive engineering.

More than 95 percent of CU-ICAR graduates are employed in the automotive industry and many current students have jobs waiting for them when they walk out the door.

“Sometimes these kids have jobs six months before they graduate. That’s how badly the employers want them,” said Zoran Filipi, chair of the automotive engineering department and executive director of the Carroll A. Campbell Graduate Engineering Center at CU-ICAR.

Building the technology

Cars truly are computers these days and what they can do for themselves is nothing short of amazing.

Clemson graduate students work together at CU-ICAR

Clemson graduate students work together at CU-ICAR.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“Most people don’t recognize that a modern-day automobile is less about mechanics and more about software,” Krovi said. “Today’s car has over 100 million lines of code in its onboard computer. To put that in perspective, that’s more code than a F-22 fighter jet, the Hubble telescope and the Mars rover — combined. Cars are supercomputers now. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dozens of luxury sedans like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class can already navigate roundabouts and parallel park on their own. And companies like General Motors, Google, Samsung and Uber are testing autonomous vehicles in bigger cities, gaining valuable data to help make autonomous vehicles even better. By 2025, experts agree they will be in virtually every U.S. city.

“In some sense, automotive companies are asking for a Renaissance engineer for today’s workforce. Today’s engineers need to understand computing just as much as engineering,” explained Krovi. “The best students are those who understand how things move and work but are a whiz with computers too.”

Faculty research is preparing students

Interns Ben Halsted and Alyssa Canning work on a computer, while their professor looks on.

Interns Ben Halsted and Alyssa Canning work on the virtual reality component of the next prototype vehicle.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

CU-ICAR professors such as Krovi and Yunyi Jia are heavily involved both nationally and internationally in this race for the future. Working with both state and federal agencies as well as global industry, they are studying things like human-robot interaction, intelligent manufacturing, autonomous driving and advanced sensing systems. And they’re not only doing this work themselves, they’re incorporating the next generation of automotive engineers into the process.

“CU-ICAR is on the cutting edge in terms of preparing our students for today’s, as well as tomorrow’s, automotive industry. And not just in the way we teach them but in terms of the research our professors are doing in the areas of automation and engineering,” Filipi said.

Projects currently under way at CU-ICAR include:

  • Deep Orange is an 18-month project that allows students to create and build a concept vehicle, which gives students hands-on experience and challenges. Deep Orange 9 — led by Robert Prucka — features students building a next-generation rallycross vehicle.
  • Professor Jia’s robot prototype can turn any car, even a Ford Pinto, into an autonomous vehicle.
  • Professor Srikanth Pilla is working with polymers, foams and composites. He and his students have created a new material that takes the door of a Honda Accord — and without sacrificing safety and structural integrity — makes it 42 percent lighter.

“This truly is an exciting time to be in,” Jia said. “When it comes to automobiles, the future is dancing ever closer to the present.”