Francesco Borrelli joins ITS Affiliated Faculty

October 8, 2014

The newest ITS affiliated faculty member, Francesco Borrelli, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, first ventured into the automobile business while in Switzerland. 

Borrelli, who specializes in advanced control systems, received his doctorate from the Automatic Control Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
He was in the process of developing a new theory and algorithm for fast optimization on an embedded control platform (one now found in today’s cars), when he was contacted by Ford Motors to create a vehicle safety system, specifically one that provided traction control on ice.
“It’s actually something of an electronic version of snow tires,” said Borrelli. “This is a device that allows you to avoid spinning the wheels when you accelerate on ice. If you push the accelerator the system will gracefully accelerate the wheels, give you better traction and get you moving,” he explained.
With this early success, he set out to expand his theory and improve his algorithms, eventually creating for Honeywell Research Laboratories a widely-used advanced engine control device that became known as OnRAMP. With a sponsorship from Honeywell, Borrelli moved to the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Minnesota, where he and his students continued to work with Ford on the traction control system, adding controls for braking, torque and steering. 
“As it turned out, we were gradually working on an autonomous car on ice,” he said. Unlike other efforts, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, which focused on the vehicle’s perception of the environment, Borrelli was focusing on the vehicle’s nonlinear dynamics at high speed and under slippery conditions.
“So assume the car perceives the environment and it knows where you should go. Can you actually travel on the ice safely, travel across roads and avoid obstacles and so on? That’s what we developed with Ford.”
In 2008, Borrelli accepted a position at UC Berkeley and moved to the Bay Area where this native of southern Italy says he feels more at home than he could anywhere else in the U.S.
In 2009 he received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program award.
In 2012, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers honored Borrelli and the team that developed the Honeywell OnRAMP Design Suite for Powertrain Control with its 2012 Control Systems Technology Award. The product, which is used by nearly a dozen original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), enables engine makers to develop and customize complex computer control for use in cars and trucks.
When he first arrived at UC Berkeley, Borrelli’s work with Ford and Honeywell motivated him to head up a research group on active safety and self-driving cars. Given the large amount of work going on in the field of automated vehicles, Borrelli chose to concentrate on two areas: understanding vehicle dynamics in unsafe conditions and the human interaction with the machine, a relatively new concept at the time.
“Rather than a totally disconnected driver, we developed a system that looks at the driver via sensors and cameras, and then interacts with the driver so there is a continuous spectrum from the driver’s point of control to an autonomous vehicle.”
Imagine, he said, you are driving your car and you pick up your phone to answer a call.
"Your car’s system knows you shouldn’t be doing that, so it takes over and perhaps helps you pull to the side of the road. Once legislation is in place allowing autonomous vehicles on roadways, your vehicle will take over driving while you are on the telephone," he explained. Similarly, if the car has difficulty understanding a particular driving scenario, it will ask the driver for help.
“So instead of a system that’s on or off, what we’ve done is create a more graceful interaction between the human and the machine.”
In addition to Ford, Borrelli has worked with Volvo, and he is currently heading a large Hyundai project, which is the focus of a longer article in the next issue of the Berkeley Transportation Letter.