From Costa Rica to designing drone controls and robotic wings at university to testing autonomous cars on the streets of Oxford, how Software Engineer Sebastian Steffen is ‘levelling up’ his knowledge with the help of his colleagues.
Read more about Seb’s role in the company, how he has been able to apply his knowledge from university into on-road testing and why a 10-minute conversation with a friend convinced him to apply for a job at Oxbotica.
When did you join Oxbotica and what were you doing before then?
I grew up in San José, Costa Rica and studied at the British School there which was full of international students. The small tech scene in Costa Rica and a desire to broaden my horizons led me to apply for courses in Europe. Originally, I wanted to study civil engineering at the University of Manchester but in the months before starting classes I became much more interested in the courses on the Aerospace Engineering programme and made the switch.
It was in Manchester where my interest in robotics really took off. The professors were really inspiring and I got to work on fascinating projects such as my bachelor’s dissertation on the modeling, simulation and control of a self-tuning vibration-energy harvester. I then enrolled in the MSc programme in Advanced Controls and Systems Engineering For my thesis I went to the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland to develop automatic controllers for bio-inspired drones. I stayed at the lab for another year as a project engineer while torn apart by the choice of staying in academia and pursuing a PhD, or moving to industry and continue learning about robotics while on the job!
How did you find out about Oxbotica?
I knew about Oxbotica from reading about mobile robotics companies and the autonomous vehicle field in particular. I was looking for jobs where I produce code for autonomy software and came across the opening at Oxbotica. At the same time I saw that a friend from Manchester was working at the company so I reached out to him to ask about the culture, the people and the projects he was working on. Within 10 minutes of speaking to him I was completely convinced it was the right place to go!
“It only took 10 minutes of speaking to him about the culture, the people and the projects he was working on to be completely sold. It sounded like it was the place to go as a graduate.”
What made you want to join Oxbotica?
I am sure I would’ve applied to Oxbotica even if I hadn’t spoken to my friend. You only need to search for Oxbotica to see the different projects they have worked on and how different they are; the software is genuinely universal. It was also the history of the company too – the fact it was a spin-out from Oxford University which has a great tech startup ecosystem with a proven history of commercialising research tech into products. I find this a really stimulating environment at this early stage in my career.
Right after my initial interview with Oxbotica I had a feeling that if I didn’t take the offer, I would regret it in 20 years’ time. It’s the vision they have, and the opportunity for growth which really excites me. I had an offer at the time for a role with a large tech company and turned it down, they couldn’t offer the learning opportunities that Oxbotica could and after nine months of being here I know without a shadow of doubt I made the right decision.
“Right after my initial interview with Oxbotica I had a feeling that if I didn’t take the offer, I would regret it in 20 years’ time.”
What team do you currently work in and what do they do?
My team works on projects that cover most of the entire self-driving stack and our day-to-day mostly involves coding in C++. I have recently worked closely with the Planning and Control team to develop new features to improve the steering and throttle response, and with the Object Tracking and Prediction team to write integration tests with other parts of the stack.
How would you describe life at Oxbotica? What is the culture like?
I had a great feeling from my first interview about the culture and the approach to problem-solving. That really influenced my decision to choose Oxbotica. I’ve been here for over nine months and I have become even more confident that I made the right decision. It’s so motivating to work in an environment where people are so good at what they do and so willing to share their expertise. I feel like, professionally, I’ve been able to ‘level up’ and learn a lot from the people around me.
“I feel like, professionally, I’ve been able to ‘level up’ and learn a lot from the people around me.”
What is the most rewarding part of your current role?
The most rewarding part of the job is being able to see your code have an effect on the car’s performance, and to know that every improvement you make is bringing us closer to reducing casualties from traffic accidents, as well as to greener and more human-friendly cities.
What do you think are the biggest challenges when it comes to rolling out autonomous vehicles?
To me some of the biggest challenges are not around the capabilities of the tech, we know that works. It’s the safety and regulatory side of it. How do we create the right tests and measure the correct numbers to make sure our system will operate efficiently and safely.
If any component of the hardware or software is underperforming, or if we encounter unforeseen circumstances, how can we make sure that the car will continue to drive, or at worst pull over without causing any dangers while it awaits repair?
There is also the need to gain approval from the regulators and the public’s trust. This is a problem every AV software company is facing. How many miles do we need to drive until we can prove that it’s safe? What test cases and scenarios do we need to use to prove our tech is safer than human drivers?
“The most rewarding part of the job is being able to see your code have an effect on the car's performance, and to know that every improvement you make is bringing us closer to reducing casualties from traffic accidents, as well as to greener and more human-friendly cities.”
What do you think will be the benefits of autonomous vehicles in the future?
The greatest benefits will come when a high proportion of the vehicle fleet is self-driving. When 90% of our cars are autonomous, we will see how creative we can be. If you don’t need to own a car then more space becomes available (for example car parks and number of lanes) and we end up with greener spaces – there won’t be a need for multi-storey car parks or wide driving lanes in cities.
How do you see your current role developing at Oxbotica?
In the future, I’d like to take ownership of larger software development projects which take a few months to complete. I’m also keen to become more involved with researching new algorithms to find better solutions in order to produce the most robust and efficient autonomous vehicles.