Karl Iagnemma is on the front lines of introducing self-driving cars to Boston’s notorious roads. Iagnemma is the chief executive of nuTonomy Inc., a Cambridge startup founded in 2013 that makes software to power autonomous vehicles. The company, spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earlier this year began testing its technology in Singapore. The next stop is closer to home for 44-year-old Iagnemma: Last month, nuTonomy reached an agreement with the city of Boston to soon begin testing on city streets.
1. Iagnemma was raised around cars and worked with them for a bit.
“I grew up in Michigan, in the Detroit area, so cars are sort of in my DNA. My father worked in the automotive industry; I studied engineering at the University of Michigan and actually worked for General Motors as a summer intern. . . . [My dad] worked for a small supplier to the automotive industry. I went off to graduate school and thought I would do something different, so I studied robotics.”
2. He earned his PhD at MIT in 2001, where he then stayed on to work. He didn’t expect to return to working with cars, but his focus on robotics brought him back — in the form of driverless tech.
“I eventually formed a robotics lab at MIT, but as fate would have it, the technology that ended up going into nuTonomy cars was really robotics technology. So my field really ended up bending back toward the automotive field that I grew up immersed in. . . . It’s funny how life works. You end up sometimes back where you started. But really, the automotive industry has been reinvented through this technology. It really makes the automotive industry the most exciting technology space to be working in today.”
3. One of his students at MIT has taken on a prominent role in the driverless tech space.
“One of my former students became the head of Tesla’s autopilot program and was responsible for launching their semiautonomous control system that’s on the road today. . . . His name is Sterling Anderson. I talk to Sterling pretty regularly. We keep in touch; he’s a great guy. Obviously one of my better students in the past.”
4. He founded nuTonomy with an MIT colleague, Emilio Frazzoli. Iagnemma now runs the company on a full-time basis. His lack of business experience hasn’t been much of a problem.
“It’s maybe an unrecognized fact of academia that what you spend a lot of your time doing is convincing people of your vision and raising funds to support your research activity. So in that sense, transitioning to a startup wasn’t that big of a transition. We’re a very tech-focused startup. We are focused on developing state-of-the-art technology that’s very hard and still very much so a research question, in some ways.”
5. He enjoys driving. Sometimes.
“I love driving through Western Massachusetts, out through the Berkshires, when the road is empty and it’s a nice day. I don’t like driving home on Memorial Drive at 5:45 or 6:45 at night when it’s crowded and stressful. I think that’s true of most people, and the goal of automated driving is to take the stressful part of driving out of the task. . . . Sometimes I drive my own car; other times it’s public transportation; and other times it’s ride-hailing.”Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.