‘Trucking Forward’: Student Challenges, Collaboration, and Innovation

This past week, ‘Trucking Forward’ hosts Tim and Adam sat down with Dr. Charlie Reinholtz, an esteemed academic and professor in the automated vehicle space. From his time spent driving students across the country to enter the DARPA challenge to fostering a problem-solving attitude, Dr. Reinholtz shared his story on this uplifting episode.

Since 1983, Dr. Reinholtz has served as a professor and academic advisor to students pursuing self-driving vehicles as part of their career path. Dr. Reinholtz shared the story of how he began this journey.

“In 1995, we entered our first Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition… And we did well in the design competition. We didn’t do very well dynamically, but we had a real great collection of students that it became a passion for me and the students,” said Dr. Reinholtz.

Dr. Reinholtz emphasized the significance of autonomous vehicle competitions as a means of providing hands-on learning opportunities and preparing students for real-world challenges. Dr. Reinholtz recounted his involvement in various student competitions, such as the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC), the Student Unmanned Aerial Systems Competition, and the DARPA Challenges. Over the years, Dr. Reinholtz and his teams at Virginia Tech consistently performed well in the design competition at IGVC, achieving more than half of the wins in the competition’s history.

From there, the conversation shed light on the importance of hands-on learning, collaboration, and innovation in shaping the future of the industry. Dr. Reinholtz’s passion for working with students and his contributions to the field have left a lasting impact on the academic world, the industry of autonomy, and even engineers at Torc.

At these competitions, students and faculty members form cohesive teams, working together toward a common goal. The camaraderie and shared experiences create a unique environment where faculty and students are equal contributors. Dr. Reinholtz expressed his admiration for students’ dedication and acknowledged their tremendous efforts, even when academic credit did not fully reflect their contributions. Tim Zuercher, VP of Engineering at Torc, agreed.

“Coming in and working in [the competition] culture, it’s the collaboration. It’s not just that you’re fixing it, it’s like we’re all fixing it. Everybody’s on the hook for the same thing, and the spirit that brings,” added Tim.

Dr. Reinholtz attributed the success of his teams to meticulous preparation and attention to detail. In competitions, unexpected challenges often arise, and teams must think on their feet and devise creative solutions. Dr. Reinholtz emphasized the importance of doing thorough homework and being fully prepared. This includes anticipating potential issues, developing robust designs, and making persuasive presentations. The ability to adapt and find “good enough” solutions amidst the chaos of competition is a valuable skill that prepares students for autonomy’s dynamic nature.

The conversation also touched upon the impact of these competitions on student motivation. Dr. Reinholtz stressed the significance of establishing a caring and supportive environment where students feel appreciated. By recognizing their hard work and providing the necessary resources, faculty members can inspire students to go beyond their academic requirements. Dr. Reinholtz’s dedication to mentoring and supporting his students has resulted in countless success stories, with graduates making significant contributions to the industry.

“I really do believe that the people are a lot more important than having the talent,” he shared. “I could see that I was working with these students, and that if I could just keep them together as a group, like what happened with Torc… they’re going to be successful. Maybe there are going to be some ups and downs, but the people are just too talented and too hardworking. You can’t fail in the long run when you have that kind of ability and motivation.”

The discussion concluded with a reflection on the technological advancements since Dr. Reinholtz’s early involvement in autonomous vehicle competitions. While the technology of that era may seem primitive compared to today, the accomplishments were still remarkable. The DARPA Challenges, in particular, presented significant milestones in the field, with teams racing autonomous vehicles across the challenging Mojave Desert. Dr. Reinholtz commended the progress made in the industry and credited the dedication and commitment of the students he had the privilege of working with.