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People of Stanford Research Park: Vidya Murali

by SRP on November 30, 2023
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Get to Know Vidya Murali: Embracing Risk to Realize Her Vision

Perception Lead at Ford Autonomy, Ford Motor Company

After Vidya Murali graduated from RV College of Engineering in her native Bangalore, India, she accepted a role at a software company. Life was unfolding along the predictable path—she had a secure job. She was earning money, and she was at the point where she was expected to get married and settle down into adulthood. But Vidya felt pulled toward a different path. She wanted to travel, see the world, and continue her studies.

At age 24, she decided that she had to honor this pull and defy the expected path. She quit her job, packed up her life as she knew it, and moved to South Carolina, where she enrolled at Clemson University to earn her master’s in electrical and computer engineering. As a fearless 24 year old, Vidya did not view this move halfway around the world as anything other than the thing she had to do. In retrospect—and now as a parent herself—she can see what her family saw: that she took a big risk, and one she would have to navigate mostly on her own and in a new country. Thank goodness, it was a risk that continues to pay her back in more ways than one.

While at Clemson, Vidya studied robotics. Among her required courses was a digital image processing class. Despite it being a difficult course, Vidya could instantly see the numerous possible applications of mounting a camera on a robot. The camera provides significantly more information than all other sensors, which also means its data is much harder to interpret. In this conundrum, Vidya was exhilarated by both the potential and the challenge.

She would then go on to pursue her PhD in computer vision and robotics. For her postdoctoral research, Vidya found herself pulled toward another move. This time to the Bay Area, where she spent two years working on a project pertaining to computer vision technologies for the blind and visually impaired. Then the perfect job called: She accepted a role as a research scientist in computer vision at Ford Motor Company in the Stanford Research Park. Ford was then in the earlier days of researching autonomous driving and building a suite of sensor-powered enhanced driving technologies. This work, then still relatively new and uncharted, proved an ideal match to Vidya’s experience and expertise. Fast forward nine years, and Vidya now leads the perception team at Ford Autonomy, where she and her team design AI and machine learning solutions to common driving pain points.

Nearly twenty years after taking the risk to move to the United States, not only has Vidya built a thriving career, but she’s also built a home and a family. As she looks back on that decision, she can also see that it allowed her to build a kind of confidence that emerges from charting one’s own path in pursuit of our deepest desires. To her, this is priceless.

We’re excited for you to get to know Vidya Murali, yet another person who makes Stanford Research Park a unique and special place.

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Vidya Murali and her son on their weekly walk at the Dish.
What is one of your most gratifying work experiences?

About four years ago, I had the opportunity to lead my computer vision team through the automatic truck trailer hitching project. The Ford F150 is the most popular vehicle in America. And many people use the truck for their work and livelihoods. Our clinical research found that backing up a truck to a trailer is a very cumbersome pain point for many people. Ford saw an opportunity to solve this problem for our F150 drivers.

This was one of the first in-house, machine-learning algorithms Ford worked on, and it was also an industry first. I led the team through research to design and engineering the solution. After four years, we launched the product earlier this year in the Ford F150 Lightning. With the press of a button and from the back-up camera alone, our trucks are able to autonomously hitch to a trailer. We’ve gotten feedback from people that this feature is making their lives easier and saving them time. Mine is a very young team, and we were so fortunate to be part of a project of this size and scale and see it through to production and launch. It has truly been the most gratifying experience.

I love hiking the Stanford Dish trail. My husband, son, and I hike it every week. It breaks the momentum of the workweek. And it helps us flow into the weekend, with fresh air and incredible views. It all reminds me how fortunate I am to be here, as an immigrant to the United States, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and in the very moment I’m in.

Vidya Murali, Perception Lead at Ford Autonomy, Ford Motor Company

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I always really wanted to get a PhD. And I wasn’t sure I would be able to do so when I first came to the United States. Every PhD student will tell you that you reach a moment where it gets really hard, and you have to cross some big hurdles. There’s a moment where you question if you’re going to be able to finish. But I wanted to do this so badly. I enjoyed the learning, the lab environment, and experimenting on robots so much that I was able to overcome every obstacle I hit and, eventually, finish.

Once I finally submitted my thesis, I felt so at peace. When I look back, completing my PhD remains one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. And it was not just a professional challenge. It was also a personal challenge. I was getting a lot of familial pressure to settle down and get married, as that was what so many peers my age were doing. But meeting this goal was so important to me. I chose to resist the personal pressure and ride out the program to the end. I am still so proud of this accomplishment.

What city do you consider your hometown?

I was born in Bangalore, India. Today, I consider Sunnyvale my hometown. It’s just a very peaceful city and an easy city to live in. And it’s where I had my son. It’s the only home he’s known. The community has been wonderful. We are so happy here.

What is your favorite food or what do you tend to crave the most?

Paneer! It’s an Indian dish made from a cheese similar to cottage cheese, and it’s usually served in some kind of gravy with rice and bread. There are many different variations of paneer. Saag paneer, the kind served with spinach, is one of my favorites. I enjoy having it at Indian buffets, and I love to make it add home and add different vegetables. To me, it’s a comfort food.

What is your favorite day of activity or destination?

I love hiking the Stanford Dish trail. It’s one of my favorite things to do. My husband, son, and I hike it every week. We’ve been doing this forever, even when we had to push our son up in a stroller. We try to go every Friday. I’ll get off work, pick up my son from school, grab a bite to eat, and then we head to the Dish.

It’s one of the most relaxing things we do. It breaks the momentum of the workweek—or, for my son, of the school week. And it helps us flow into the weekend, with fresh air and incredible views. From this one trail, you can see the foothills and the bay. You can see Stanford’s Hoover Tower and, from a certain point, the Quad. And sometimes, we even get to watch the sun set. It all reminds me how fortunate I am to be here, as an immigrant to the United States, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and in the very moment I’m in.

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