March 7, 2022
In the pilot episode of the “Hover Cars and Hard Problems” podcast, co-hosts Curt Chan and Josh Poley set the tone with some light banter mixed with serious questions about the future of engineering.
“You know what?” Curt starts off. “I really thought that there would be hover cars in the 21st century.” His deadpan delivery reveals his disappointment, with the tone of a kid who didn’t get what he asked for on Christmas morning.
“I know,” Josh replies. “I’m so disappointed right now in the lack of hover cars being everywhere. … I thought it was a forgone conclusion. I thought I’d have a hover car at the age of 16.” There’s a chuckle in his voice.
They blame it on Hollywood — on the cartoon series The Jetsons from the 1960s, whose opening theme features the four members of the Jetson family flying in a hover car to their daily routines — and on the movie Back to the Future, which features a hovering, time-traveling DeLorean car.
“Is [developing hover cars] really that hard to solve?” Curt asks.
“I think it is,” Josh says. “It’s pretty hard.”
Hence the title of the podcast. Hover cars act as a stand-in for all the hard problems that engineers have yet to solve. But the podcast is also about all new technologies and the hard problems they are creating in turn.
In the space of 18-25 minutes, Curt and Josh, sometimes accompanied by Mary Kate Joyce, the third host on the podcast team, interview engineers and other people from inside Ansys or from other companies where engineers are attempting to solve hard problems facing society.
Sometimes the talk briefly drifts into simulation, but this podcast is not a commercial for Ansys software. It is a forward-looking exploration of the challenges that engineers are now trying to solve and will try to solve in the future. Of course, we can’t even imagine what some of these challenges will be yet.
That’s the question the hosts ask every guest on the podcast.
For Kevin Flood of AGI, an Ansys company, his hover car moment is the increasing possibility of space colonization. He notes that recent advances in space travel and launch technologies have made it feel like space colonization is really within our grasp.
When Mary Kate asks him if he would go to space if given the opportunity, Kevin replies, “I would absolutely go to space. I would probably have to sneak out of the house because I would not get permission from my wife to go on that trip, I’m sure.”
Everyone has a different answer to the question because what fascinates us is a personal thing.
“I’d say the coolest thing for me, when I was growing up, the SR71 Blackbird was the epitome of cool,” John Zinn replies in another episode. “Traveling at Mach 3.5, you could travel supersonically and get around the globe instantly.” The SR71 Blackbird was a high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft that flew from 1966 to 1999.
Jane Trenaman offered a two-part answer – one that came from her grandmother and one from her own experience.
For her grandmother, who was born in 1889 and lived over 100 years in Australia, her hover car moment was the change from gaslight to electric lights in Australia’s Central railroad station in Sydney. Gaslight was yellow and hazy, so when she arrived at the station at night and the electric lights made the station look like it was daytime, this had the most impact on her of any technological marvel she had seen in her lifetime. Remember, this was a life that included the introduction of automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, television, and landing a man on the moon.
Trenaman’s own hover car moment came from a technology she was skeptical about at first: social media. She comes from a big family in Australia, yet she has been living in the United States for years.
“When you live in a different country, you miss out on all the little day-to-day things, like the day the baby walks or says ‘mum’ for the first time,” Trenaman says. “Social media has made a huge difference in my life because it means that I can participate in all those little moments via Facebook.”
Flood deals with complex “system of systems” in the field of aerospace. The high level of complexity has led to a hard problem: digital transformation of engineering.
When he started, most engineering problems could be broken down into their contributing parts, and you would give each part to a subject matter expert to solve, Flood explains. As long as you met the requirements for your specific piece, you felt confident that when you brought the pieces back together in the end, everything would work as an integrated system. But that’s no longer the case.
“The problems that we are working on right now are way too complicated,” he says. “The objectives that you are trying to achieve change dynamically over time, and you want to think them through ahead of time. The interoperability and interconnectivity of the different parts of system of systems architectures are too complicated. You need a transformed engineering process to address that, so that means all the engineers in each of their disciplinary areas somehow have to contribute their expertise through digital models in ways that those things can cascade together in the end.”
Flood’s team and many others around the world are currently finding solutions to digital transformation so their work on complex problems can continue.
Working to make autonomous cars a reality is a hard problem that Zinn and his team are attacking. While many improvements are available in some of today’s cars, like blind spot assist, lane assist, and automatic braking, we are still some years away from a fully autonomous Level 5 car that would be the equivalent of having a chauffeur drive while you slept in the car, read a book, or caught up on some work. The challenge of autonomous driving is so difficult that it has gone through various structural permutations.
“There was this idea in the early days on that infrastructure would provide you with information,” Zinn says. “You would have a digital highway with sensors on the road collecting all the information, but that requires so much money and cost and government involvement. Some areas are still working on ideas like that for larger urban areas, but for autonomous technology to be universal, all the sensors have to work on the car.”
Digital transformation and autonomous vehicles are just two of the hard problems dealt with in the early episodes of this podcast. Each episode presents new problems that remain to be solved.
Curt, Josh, and Mary Kate are savvy interviewers who know that a sense of humor can brighten up a podcast. Laughs are frequently interspersed between the engineering talk. Take, for instance, the episode in which Josh introduces Anthony Pascale as “the first man on Earth to drive a hover car to work every single day for your daily commute.” I won’t spoil it for you – you’ll have to watch the episode to get the joke. It’s worth waiting for.
The podcast team has seven episodes finished and ready to go. A new episode will be released every two weeks; some are already available. You can find the podcasts here or wherever you subscribe to podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and iTunes.
Don’t wait — bookmark the link to listen to future episodes of the “Hover Cars and Hard Problems” podcast. You can also find the first two episodes below. Tell your friends and write a review to get more people interested in this fascinating podcast about how engineering is solving the world’s toughest problems.