The Ford Summer Sabbatical is giving junior faculty a boost

September 21, 2018

A collaboration between Ford and UM-Dearborn is becoming an important incubator for new research.

CECS faculty Xi Chen took part in the 2018 Ford Summer Sabbatical Program.
CECS faculty Xi Chen took part in the 2018 Ford Summer Sabbatical Program.
CECS faculty member Xi Chen took part in the 2018 Ford Summer Sabbatical Program.

Industry partnerships are one of the key lifelines for engineering research at universities. But because such collaborations are often rooted in years of old-fashioned, low-tech human networking, they can prove an elusive target for younger faculty.

So a couple years ago, Ford Motor Co. and UM-Dearborn designed a program to give the university's emerging class of engineering and computer science talent a leg up. Launched in 2017, the Ford Summer Sabbatical pairs Ford research teams with UM-Dearborn faculty for short-term summer projects. Janice Verkerke, one of the organizers of the program at Ford, said these sabbaticals allow the company to leverage outside academic expertise and seed new research relationships. For faculty, it’s a chance to get their foot in the door, do some concentrated applied research and connect with Ford experts who share their research interests.

In all, nine UM-Dearborn faculty signed on for this summer’s program, hosted at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center, where they lent their expertise to a range of projects.

Xi Chen, an assistant professor in the department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering, spent the summer building mathematical models for engine performance and investigating real-time methods for autonomous vehicle control. And Chen’s IMSE colleague Assistant Professor Abdallah Chehade, whose specialty is predictive analytics, tackled a warranty project that involved pulling new truths out of “hundreds of gigabytes worth of data dating back to 2008.”

For IMSE Assistant Professor Feng Zhou, the focus was autonomous vehicles, and he used his June-August stint at Ford to create machine learning models that predict driver fatigue. The core idea there is that the coming generation of autonomous vehicles will still require human intervention in case of emergency. But a behind-the-wheel experience where drivers are doing less actual driving could lead them to become less engaged — or maybe even doze off.

“So we looked at important measures, like eye closure, breathing rate and heart rate, and then built a couple of different models,” Zhou said. “With one, we could predict driver fatigue in real time with surprising accuracy. And the other model we built actually attempted to predict ahead of time when someone is entering the ‘fatigue zone.’ That one was also very effective.”

In fact, Zhou’s project with his Ford adviser, Louis Tijerina, was so promising, they’ve now filed an “invention disclosure” — a step on the way to a patent filing. Zhou said he’s also working on publishing two papers based on the team’s summer research.

Zhou, Chen and Chehade all mentioned that the summer experience is already giving a boost to their research goals. All three have since submitted follow-up proposals with Ford — including for the company’s much larger program that specifically funds collaborations with university researchers. Chehade, in fact, has already had one such subsequent “mini project” funded.

Even beyond that, though, Chen said the summer at Ford brought a certain kind of personal satisfaction.

“As an academic, it’s really rewarding to be able to engage in theoretical research,” she said. “But in a setting like the summer sabbatical, it’s all about how that translates to solving real problems and exploring contexts that might be completely new to you. So to see your work and expertise translated into practice like that is a very positive experience.”

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