The Road to Autonomous Trucks

Dylan Dai applies his MSR education to his role at self-driving vehicle company Plus and is helping create a future where goods traverse the country without anyone behind the wheel.

If you’ve ever felt a twinge of anxiety at the deep rumble of a massive 18-wheeler as it zoomed by on the expressway, you understand the importance of Dylan Dai’s work.  

Dai (MSR ‘18) is a graduate of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program and a senior software engineer at Plus, a company developing self-driving trucks and other autonomous vehicle solutions. His job is to help ensure that if self-driving trucks ever make their way onto the highway, that the massive semis are safe companions for their human-carrying counterparts.   

Dai said he understands the importance of the work he is doing and that the journey from today’s people-piloted vehicles to self-driving trucks of the future will unfold slowly.  

“Just like other technologies, autonomous driving needs time to develop, iterate, and evolve,” he said. “While the final format of how it gets along with people isn't clear yet, one day it'll be part of our life in a way that the majority of people accept and get benefits from.”  

Safety is the critical concern. The push for autonomous semis comes at a time when deaths caused by large-truck crashes are on the rise – up nearly 50 percent since 2009. In more than 60 percent of those accidents, those who died were someone other than the truck driver.  

Dai’s daily work focuses on creating a safer future. His tasks include developing, testing, and improving sensor integration into autonomous vehicles. His MSR education is at the foundation of his approach to the job.   

Learning about the Robot Operating System in Embedded Systems in Robotics helped him understand how different hardware and software components work together and how to orchestrate them. The lessons he learned in Robotic Manipulation taught him about rigid body transformation and rotation, which he used while working with localization and mapping software. 

Even courses that weren’t directly related to the work he’s doing today are helping him in his role at Plus. 

“Though I am not working on perception software," Dai said, "the knowledge I learned from computer vision helps me understand the fundamentals and makes it easier for me to communicate and work with the perception team."  

Dai was drawn to the MSR program because of the flexible curriculum that allowed him to focus on the direction he wanted to move in his career. He said the program’s small cohort size allowed him to get to know and work closely with a variety of people who came at projects from diverse starting points. 

After graduation, Dai worked as a research scientist in the AI lab at 3M before joining Plus as a software engineer in May 2021. He was promoted into his current position in January 2023.  

Dai said he enjoys the challenge of working on new technology in a startup environment.  

“Because of that, whatever I work on is often brought to life sooner,” he said. “Seeing the software I worked with on those giant semi-trucks, running smoothly and reliably, really brings me excitement and a sense of achievement.”  

His job also has a hands-on component that excites him – the opportunity to jump in an autonomous truck and test his latest development.  

Still, Dai said he knows there are many obstacles to overcome before driverless semi-trucks are common on highways. The role of companies developing autonomous vehicle technology is to proceed with caution and take responsibility when things go awry, he said.  

“Companies that are involved with this technological development should take all sorts of safety measures to make sure it progresses peacefully,” he said. “I truly believe that autonomous vehicles, if developed and managed properly, will bring gains in road safety and fuel efficiency.”  

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