CLEMSON — A world-renowned robotics expert is starting an education and research program that could help South Carolina play a leading role in developing the driverless automobiles that are hitting the street faster than many experts imagined.

Venkat Krovi came to Clemson University after 15 years at the University of Buffalo and is now in his first semester as the Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation.

Venkat Krovi is the new Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation.

Venkat Krovi is the new Michelin Endowed Chair in Vehicle Automation.

The mechanical engineer has a wide-ranging background in robotics but is now turning his attention to autonomous vehicles, a field that could lead to some of the biggest changes in driving since the days of the horse and buggy.

It’s all happening faster than many once thought it would, Krovi said.

Uber has self-driving cars ferrying customers around Pittsburgh. Some automobiles use cameras and sensors to warn drivers of an impending collision. Several automakers offer cars with lane-keeping assist, automated collision-avoidance, adaptive cruise control and parking-assist.

“Rollout of a new automobile design used to take seven years,” Krovi said. “It has now shrunk to 18-36 months on average. An ecosystem of manufacturers and suppliers and infrastructure was needed to contemplate commercial car production. But we’ve had technology pioneers like Elon Musk and people at Google who have challenged the status quo.”

As an endowed chair at Clemson, Krovi holds one of the university’s most high-profile faculty positions. The position is funded by an endowment from Michelin and the state’s lottery-funded SmartState program.

Venkat Krovi works in a lab with Pierluigi Pisu, associate professor of automotive engineering, and Yunyi Jia, assistant professor of automotive engineering.

Venkat Krovi works in a lab with Pierluigi Pisu, associate professor of automotive engineering, and Yunyi Jia, assistant professor of automotive engineering.

Pete Selleck, chairman and president of Michelin North America, said the company supported the endowment to help South Carolina invest in the education and research that can help lift the state’s economy.

“We want to welcome Dr. Krovi to South Carolina,” Selleck said. “Professors of Dr. Krovi’s caliber bring quality education that is critical in preparing students for the challenges they face in the 21st-century workplace. Vehicle automation is a cutting-edge field with huge potential for the state. Dr. Krovi is a great fit to start an innovative research program that could lead to new technology and create jobs for South Carolina.”

Krovi said the infectious energy surrounding engineering in South Carolina drew him to Clemson.

“There are very few places in the world where you have a vehicle ecosystem,” he said. “You have Detroit, and there’s a budding one in Silicon Valley. But we are in the heart of the Southern auto alliance, the so-called ‘New Detroit.’ It’s a gift that you have a co-location of so many forward-looking companies like BMW, Volvo and Michelin right here in South Carolina. They understand that with some of the changes in the automotive market space, if you’re not nimble enough, you’re going to be left behind.

“South Carolina is an exciting place to be involved in vehicle automation. I’d like to thank Michelin and the SmartState program for providing the funds for the position that brought me here.”

One of the big challenges that Krovi faces is figuring out how autonomous vehicles can work together with vehicles driven by humans.

“Human drivers are the most unpredictable,” Krovi said. “What are they going to do in any given situation? Humans are the biggest risk factor, whether it’s eating, texting, distracted driving of any sort. The next 30 years are going to be one of co-existence. It provides a very rich frame in which people can say, ‘What does it take for humans and robots to work together to co-exist and make the most of each other’s capabilities?’”

Krovi is a faculty member in the automotive engineering department and is based at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville.

While at the University of Buffalo, he built an international reputation as a highly regarded expert in robotics and building interdisciplinary teams. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, an honor that goes to fewer than 2.5 percent of its members.

Zoran Filipi, the chair of Clemson’s department of automotive engineering, said that Krovi is highly accomplished in mobile and manufacturing robots.

“He is now bringing his talents to bear on vehicle automation, an exciting area that will transform personal mobility,” Filipi said. “I congratulate him on his new position and welcome him to Clemson.”

It would be an understatement to say that Krovi hit the ground running when he arrived at Clemson. In his first month, he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and started planning a mini-Formula One race with driverless cars.

The cars will be about the size of a remote-controlled car and go on scaled, warehouse-sized tracks at scaled speeds that will allow autonomous behaviors to be studied.

The race will  be a way of organizing teams of students and faculty members from various disciplines and getting them to work together. Automotive, mechanical and software engineers will be needed, along with computer scientists.

“An autonomous car racing challenge would attract a lot of students and faculty,” Krovi said. “But embedded in that are serious projects. It’s the same obstacle detection, code and expertise that they will need to do pedestrian detection for full-scale vehicles. It’s the vehicle dynamics and handling characteristics that you might do on a miniature scale, but you might find becomes very useful for full-scale systems.

“Most importantly, it’s your ability to work together in these interdisciplinary teams that will stand out in any workplace setting, whether it’s in industry or academia.”

Among those welcoming Krovi to the university was Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

“Venkat is a researcher and scholar par excellence,” Gramopadhye said. “We are glad to have a talent like him in our state. This will benefit students, industry and the broader transportation community.”

Krovi comes to Clemson with impressive credentials.

He helped lead the University of Buffalo’s participation in various projects associated with the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a federally funded program aimed at accelerating advanced manufacturing through institutes.

Krovi’s efforts included a leadership role in writing the proposal that secured the university’s  Tier-1 membership in the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. Krovi also led the university’s participation in the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

His leadership extended to conferences, including those for the ASME Design Engineering Division, the ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Division and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. Krovi won a Distinguished Service Award from Visit Buffalo Niagara for bringing an ASME conference to the area, which had an economic impact of more than $1.4 million.

Krovi said the intellectual assets and infrastructure are in place to begin pursuing big autonomous vehicle projects in South Carolina.

He said he will be building on the work of other Clemson faculty members, who are already working in the area of autonomous and connected vehicles. They include Beshah Ayalew, Richard Brooks, Ronnie Chowdhury, Yunyi Jia, Eileen Kraemer, Jim Martin, Pierluigi Pisu and Ardalan Vahidi.

“I’m excited to be working with this group of faculty members,” he said. “The scholastic strength at Clemson is impressive.”

Krovi said that he also looks forward to working with regional collaborators outside Clemson, including the International Transportation Innovation Center.

He also noted that BMW’s Information Technology Research Center is right next door to his office at CU-ICAR. The company’s plant and North American headquarters are about 15 miles away and Michelin’s North American headquarters are a 10-minute drive.

“As they say in real estate, ‘location, location, location,’” Krovi said. “The assets are in place. How do we start getting them to work together on interesting, challenging projects? I’m hoping that I’ll be able to work with all of them on exciting autonomous and connected vehicles projects.”