By Steve Hendershot
Photos: Courtesy of Waymo

YJ Ahn (M.D.M. ’06) seems too warm and approachable to be an agent of radical change. Yet those are the traits that she shares with her signature project, the Waymo Driver: a combination of both hardware and software that, when applied, looks like a sailboat wearing a fedora, but that aspires to make your car drive itself.

Ahn didn’t set out to design autonomous vehicles, or to work at Waymo, which spun out from Google in 2016 and, like Google, is a subsidiary of parent company Alphabet. But she did plan to devote her career to tackling complex challenges with society-altering implications, and the futuristic world of autonomous vehicles certainly qualifies.

“I enjoy [projects] with lots of technology and complexity, and making new things—that’s what gets me,” Ahn says. “I’ve always enjoyed the chaos [of pursuing an undefined solution]. That’s actually the most exciting time for me. When you’re able to create something new for people to experience, it’s so satisfying.”

Ahn’s career has included three such industry-shaking challenges. In 2001, after completing her first master’s degree in industrial design in her native South Korea, she took a job at LG Electronics, where she worked on digital electronics such as home-theater products in the midst of the high-definition revolution. Then, after five years there, she moved to Chicago to pursue a second graduate degree at Illinois Tech’s Institute of Design. She stayed in the area to take a job at Motorola, a flip-phone behemoth that was racing to adapt to the smartphone era.

“YJ was always more than a designer. She was not only good at solving problems, but also at understanding and defining the problems that needed to be solved, even on projects that were complex and ambiguous,” says Peter Pfanner, Ahn’s supervisor at Motorola. “She’s a prototype for what designers need to be in the future, and for what design needs to be able to do.”

YJ Ahn (M.D.M. ’06) sits in the Google Firefly, the first autonomous vehicle that she helped design.

Ahn stayed at Motorola for six years, working to develop Motorola’s first Android devices. She left just as the category was maturing—and learned something about herself in the process.

“When everything is settled, and the focus becomes ‘Let’s make it faster, thinner, smaller,’ that’s when I start losing interest a little bit,” she says.

In that sense, Ahn has now found the perfect industry: she has been working on autonomous vehicle technology for nine years, but the finish line remains miles ahead. Waymo, where Ahn is head of design, leads the small pack of companies competing to define a future where transportation is shaped by autonomous vehicles. The company began as a project within Google in 2009; Ahn joined in 2012, flying to Silicon Valley for an interview without knowing the project for which she was being recruited.

Once she learned the details, there wasn’t much to negotiate. “I realized the challenge was to change the future of transportation, and I saw another chance to work on one of these major transitions. I didn’t have to think twice,” Ahn says.

Among her first tasks was to lead the design of the Google Firefly, a self-driving car built in 2014.

The Firefly wasn’t ready for primetime—nor was it intended to be—but as a functional autonomous vehicle prototype, it represented a milestone for the industry. It also paved the way for broader consumer acceptance of the concept of an autonomous vehicle.

“I realized the challenge was to change the future of transportation, and I saw another chance to work on one of these major transitions. I didn’t have to think twice.” —YJ Ahn

“The first design was exceptionally friendly, because we didn’t want people thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s a robot car invading my neighborhood,’” Ahn says. “Just looking at it was scary, because it was a car with no one inside, yet it was moving around. So we wanted to take baby steps.”

Gradually the spec for Waymo’s autonomous vehicles has come into focus. When Ahn first surveyed her design team for ideas during the Firefly’s development, they returned images whose inspirations ranged from spaceships to toy cars. Prospective passengers asked about what they wanted in an autonomous car listed features such as spas, movie theaters, and roundtable seating. But as Waymo’s prototype testing expanded, the team soon learned that the form factor of a traditional car seemed to work just fine.

So Waymo changed strategies and created the Waymo Driver, technology capable of turning standard production cars into autonomous-driving marvels, rather than building standalone autonomous vehicles. That strategy has helped Waymo push closer to commercialization: Waymo Driver now operates a fully public driverless ride-hailing service in

Phoenix, and is also testing its technology in numerous other markets and conditions. The company in August announced its Trusted Tester program for select members of the public to experience the service in San Francisco.

Of course, as Waymo makes strides, there’s also the danger that Ahn will get bored and move on to another industry primed for upheaval. Are autonomous vehicles at risk of becoming stable and boring?

“At some point people will find the sweet spot and this industry will become settled. But we’re still at a place where this technology has just started, and we still have to go through many stages of adoption, adaptation, and evolution,” Ahn says.

To some people, that’s a wearying thought. But for Ahn, who is happiest in the midst of the chaos of change, it’s the best-case scenario.●

Designing for What’s Next

YJ Ahn (M.D.M. ’06) has devoted her career to tackling complex challenges with society-altering implications. Wading into the waters of autonomous vehicles certainly qualifies.

Throughout nearly a decade at Waymo, the autonomous vehicle maker that spun out of Google, Ahn has developed a key insight into her emerging industry: people don’t know what they don’t know.

“It is risky to apply typical market research methods for something that doesn’t exist yet. It’s good for improving existing products because then you already have a car and you have pain points that [research] can help you identify and improve,” Ahn says. But when it’s something wholly new, “A lot of times people have no idea what the technology can lead them to.”

Her team’s current project, the Waymo Driver, is a good example of this process.

It uses data collected from tests to further refine the Waymo Driver. For example, when it became clear that human drivers struggled with the inability to interact with a Waymo-powered vehicle—to signal an intent to yield, for instance—the Waymo team built an LED display atop the vehicle’s rooftop apparatus to provide nearby drivers with information about its plans. That sort of change, which improves the perceived safety of autonomous vehicles, may be nearly as essential to the future of autonomous vehicles as their actual performance.