Smitha Vempaty: Innovating safer roads and empowering women in STEM

Written by: Ranjani Rajendra

Name: Smita Vempaty | Designation: Autonomous Engineering Manager | Company: Aptiv PLC | Place: Michigan

(September 05, 2023) It was just another regular day for India-born Smitha Vempaty as she was driving down a highway in the US. Suddenly though, a fatal car-trailer rollover on a cloverleaf exit ramp left her shaken. “It was an avoidable tragedy and I simply could not move on,” she says. That incident proved to be a motivation for her to pursue a career in improving the active safety of vehicles and autonomous driving. Currently working as an autonomous engineering manager for Aptiv PLC, an auto supplier in Troy, Michigan. “I devoted all my after-hours to researching ways to prevent such curved path trailering accidents. I ultimately found a method to improve car-trailer lateral stability using adaptive control,” says the woman, who in her 19-year-long career has developed new vehicle features at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, sensor-based control systems, modelling, and simulation.

Smitha Vempaty, Engineering manager at Aptiv PLC, an auto supplier in Michigan.

Originally from Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh, Smitha is no stranger to relentlessly carving a path for herself. Born to a Mathematics professor father and a novelist mother, she did her BTech in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur. She then moved to the States for her MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Oakland University. She went on to work with reputed companies such as Navistar and Cummins in various R&D roles in the US before she moved to Canada with Honeywell Aerospace and eventually moved to General Motors where she worked for nearly 10 years. In the process she became a naturalised Canadian citizen before she moved back to the US with Aptiv in 2020.

While on her maternity leave in Canada, Smitha completed her Ph.D. in Control Systems, Sensors & Simulations from Ontario Tech University and published the results in various reputed journals. “I received a lot of development interest in my work from academia and commercial companies. Applying my findings, over time, I graduated into building autonomous driving simulators to test multiple extreme real-world scenarios in which road accidents usually happen so that a self-driving car can be programmed to mitigate such crashes and save lives and property. I was fortunate to find traction in this line of work as my entry timing coincided with the foray of big tech and legacy automakers all racing to build the world’s first fully autonomous car,” she explains.

Currently a patent-holding inventor, a Six Sigma black belt, and an agile practitioner, Smitha leads highly technical teams toward the goal of making cars drive themselves. Shedding light on the job market in the US, the Global Indian says, “I advise aspirants to stop hiding your inaction and timidity behind excuses and to not fake anything on your job application. Highlight one skill most relevant to the job you are applying to and build your narrative in your resume and cover letter around that one skill. Patiently tailor your resume to every job posting. Do not carpet bomb the marketplace with one resume without trying to state what you can deliver in that specific role.”

Smitha with her family.

Given that she works in a team comprising diverse individuals, she states that her experience has taught her that true diversity also includes diversity of thought and viewpoint. “I believe viewpoint diversity is the one that helps us understand that all people have unique experiences and see things differently. It’s not just about empathy. It’s not just about tolerance. And it’s certainly not just about consensus. It is mostly about engaging in a positive intellectual inquiry by better understanding the people you work with, being thoughtful about their ideas’ backgrounds, and valuing the strategies they bring to the decision-making table,” she explains.

On a typical day, Smitha fields meetings with teams spread across continents followed by some product development work. “I usually end my work day at 5 pm for a cup of tea with my family before heading to the gym or dance class. Dinner is usually a family affair and then I unwind with some Lego building or story-time with my 6-year-old son.” This is followed by her online MBA class at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, class assignments and prepping for the following day while watching Netflix. “At this point in my life, I’ve earned some flexibility in my working hours. I most often work from home. And my after-hour routine has also become more predictable. I have embraced how my brain works and set blocks of time for different tasks. Of course, my hyperactive self sometimes stuffs too many things into a day, but I constantly calibrate my schedule to what is achievable. I now have what they call a ‘routine’.”

A trained classical dancer, Smitha has learned both Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi and continues to learn new pieces, choreographing, and performing when possible. “I consume Telugu literature and am a member of a group that promotes high literature among expats. I am an avid road-tripper and have covered 46 states in the US, three provinces in Canada, three countries in Europe, and countless tourist spots on and off the beaten path in India,” she says.

This apart, Smitha makes sure she sets time aside to mentor high school and college-age girls and nudges them towards STEM careers. “I promoted STEM streams at schools and universities through motivational speeches and recruitment drives. I truly think getting over the skill gap between men and women in STEM fields is the only panacea toward self-reliance and financial independence for many women who are either directionless or aim for the low-hanging fruit. In fact, to prove to young women that “women can have it all,” I participated in and finished runner-up at a Mrs. Canada pageant in 2019. I proved to them that a girl can be as confident in hard hats and steel toes as in sparkling tiaras and 4-inch stilettos,” she says.

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