Why I left academia post-PhD for the world of driverless cars



“That’s already been invented, you idiot!” was a friend’s reaction to my answer to the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?”. I’d said that I wanted to be an inventor, and when prompted for any ideas, I said that I thought electric cars were kind of cool.

This was in 1990, or thereabouts, and I’d been interviewed for the local newspaper that was doing a feature on the aspirations of schoolchildren. I think that electric cars had featured in that week’s Tomorrow’s World and hence weren’t quite as mysterious as they had been the week before.

I’d always been interested in science and innovation. Part of this was no doubt due to my sister’s birthday falling on 20 July 1969, or as it’s more famously known, the day that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the Moon. Every year, I had a reminder of that amazing story of daring, science, bravery and technology, and it was intoxicating. I grew up dreaming of space while the world became engulfed in technology.

Throughout my childhood, I’d displayed a keen interest in and aptitude for maths and problem-solving, so it wasn’t surprising when I found myself at Durham University in 2004 about to embark on a PhD in mathematical physics, still dreaming of space and exploration, and hoping to discover something revolutionary in my field.

However, during my PhD, I suddenly became aware of something that I’d never really appreciated before – that I wasn’t alone. There were many others who were all equally talented (or more so) and far from being at the forefront of new developments, I suddenly felt caught up in a race to prove that I was good enough, that I deserved to be there, and that I could contribute.

While my PhD was a success in that – through computational methods – I discovered some new mathematical relations, wrote three papers and completed and defended my thesis, I felt like I wasn’t really making the difference that I was hoping for. There were so many papers being published every day that I couldn’t see how I could ever keep up.

I decided to leave academia and move into industry. Looking back now, I realise that I was hopelessly naive in what I thought I knew when I started and what I expected to be able to do during my PhD. But I don’t regret moving because I happened to fall into the world of driverless cars.

Ultra PRT, the Bristol-based company that I joined after my PhD, is the creator, builder and operator of the world’s first driverless taxi system, which has been running at Heathrow Airport for five years, carrying passengers between Terminal 5 and one of the car parks on the northern perimeter.

Ultra PRT was still a small company when I joined so I had the opportunity not only to work on the cutting-edge control system research that was the reason they had hired me, but also to take on challenges in web design, project management, costings and more.

I also had the privilege of working with Professor Martin Lowson, the late pioneer of the Saturn V rocket programme, Westland Helicopters and, as I knew him, the creator of the world’s leading driverless car.

It was while at Ultra that I, along with colleagues, discovered that we had a problem. Technology was moving on but we were still writing up our research using old tools. Collaboration was a nightmare of mixed-up versions, emails and endless formatting changes. My colleague John Lees-Miller built a simple solution, now called Overleaf, and at the end of 2012, we decided that it was time to quit our jobs and start out on our own.

The story of Overleaf deserves its own space, but suffice it to say we made it a success and are now running a still small, but growing, start-up in London supporting more than 500,000 scientific writers, students and researchers worldwide, and working with some of the world’s largest publishers and institutions on making science and research more open, collaborative and accessible.

Now, I have a new challenge, a 13-month-old daughter, Julia Grace, who, in her fresh outlook on the world, is constantly reminding me of my dreams of space and exploration. I never expected my choices at school, university, in industry, and as a co-founder and father to have led me in such a direction, but perhaps that’s the point. If I hadn’t taken those steps, moving forward, I never would have known.

Author Bio: John Hammersley is co-founder and chief executive officer of Overleaf, the online collaborative writing and reviewing tool.