LHP company driven by autonomous vehicles

A Columbus company’s desire to help prevent automobile crashes such as the one that injured a local basketball star has shifted from concept to high gear.

LHP Engineering Solutions has been involved in the field of autonomous vehicles for more than a year. Specifically, the Columbus-based engineering services and technology integration company is focusing on the training needed to meet industry functional safety standards for self-driving control applications.

Functional safety with autonomous vehicles relates to software embedded into the electronic control systems that operate various aspects of a vehicle — such as the throttle, cameras, lane-control sensors and active braking — and making it “smart.” LHP’s goal is to make sure the controls systems meet industry standards and process information correctly so safety is ensured.

The idea to get into the autonomous vehicles field followed a Feb. 1, 2015, auto accident involving Columbus North basketball star Josh Speidel. As he attempted to drive across U.S. 31 near Taylorsville, Speidel never saw an oncoming vehicle, and suffered a traumatic brain injury and other bodily injuries after his own car was struck during the accident.

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“The light bulb really went off when I was sitting in the hospital room with his parents and thinking all this technology existed, and we’re right in the heart of it. I just wanted to make a more focused effort on trying to help move that technology along,” said David Glass, LHP’s chief executive officer, who had coached Speidel in youth baseball.

Since then, the company has made strides.

LHP has 80 to 100 customers in the autonomous vehicles industry. Mostly they are developing or thinking about autonomous-control solutions, or developing components that go into autonomous controls applications, Glass said. LHP’s role is to provide engineering services and technology to the companies.

LHP’s objective

The company has integrated functional safety education into its LHP University (LHPU) program, a training tool for entry-level controls engineers that began in 2011.Products that can cause harm to humans are generally controlled by development standards and government oversight to ensure the general public is safe, LHPU President Zach McClellan said.

An example of this is the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of aircraft development, he said.

“The automotive industry’s transformation is essentially asking the public to trust their lives to a computer and a machine,” McClellan said. “Functional safety in practical terms is defined as the steps engineers and organizations take to avoid failures that harm the public.”

LHP has partnered with Hanover, Germany-based company TÜV Nord, which provides a widely recognized functional safety certification exam. Certifications are needed for products and an engineer’s capability. LHP provides the training needed to pass the certification exam.

“Our objective is to be the industry leader in functional safety,” Glass said.

Glass said he didn’t know immediately which avenue to pursue within autonomous vehicles, but eventually it became clear.

“I just recognized that we were in the right technology space, and the more we dig into it the more we refine our position in that space. It’s just become apparent that functional safety is one of the key places we can play,” Glass said.

The company expects sales to grow by 30 percent this year and reach $40 million, because of its involvement in the self-driving vehicle industry, Glass said. The company finished with about $34 million in sales in 2016, he said.

The CEO said he compares the autonomous vehicle field to when the internet took off in the mid-1990s.

“It’s going to improve people’s lives from a safety standpoint, but also a productivity standpoint,” Glass said.

He also said autonomous vehicles will change how people learn to drive, and could one day possibly eliminate that need.

“I feel pretty good about the programs and opportunities in front of us,” Glass said.

Growth projections

Jumping into the autonomous vehicles industry has necessitated a surge in hiring engineers to meet the demands of customers. LHP hired 40 in the fourth quarter of 2016 — at starting salaries of $65,000 to $100,000, depending on experience — and now has a workforce of more than 400 employees at its domestic and international locations. LHP expects to hire about 100 employees this year, but has a need to fill about 300, Glass said.LHP hired some functional safety experts from the aerospace industry because of their knowledge of the technology needed to control a plane’s autopilot function — similar to what is needed for self-driving cars, Glass said.

Functional safety expertise is helpful to training and the projects LHP works on with customers.

One project, for example, is with a startup company in California that makes Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) systems that create 3-D images of surroundings, Glass said.

Program’s start

Functional safety training began at LHPU in 2016.Graduating college students have engineering theory knowledge but not the application experience, so LHPU provides that with a six-week bootcamp, Glass said.

The hands-on learning and application of knowledge gives LHP graduates an advantage in their efforts to obtain a job, Glass said.

While LHPU was started to help students gain experience with the electronic engine controls of gas- and diesel-powered engines, it has added functional safety training needed for the autonomous vehicles industry.

A new automotive functional safety class is underway, and its first graduates in late May will earn a Society of Automotive Engineers certificate (Fundamentals of Automotive Functional Safety Control Systems) that meets an important industry safety standard (ISO 26262) for on-highway vehicles.

The bootcamps cost about $12,000 per student, but LHP offers some assistance in the form of two scholarships that cover tuition — one in honor of Speidel and the other in honor of Rick Poorman, an LHPU instructor who died last year.

About 160 to 200 students will come through the LHPU program this year, Glass said. LHPU graduates are hired by LHP and other companies, he said.

“We try to build them a larger system perspective on a very complicated application, and ramp them up in a very structured way,” Glass said.

For example, one project LHPU students are assigned deals with the engine’s throttle, which regulates the amount of air that flows into the engine. Students must perform a detailed documentation to show they understand the functional safety process according to the ISO 26262 standard, McClellan said.

Understanding that standard is a new aspect of the training, and a challenge because the document is about 700 pages, McClellan said.

But the standard is important, Glass said, offering an example why.

“Would you want to fly in an airplane on autopilot if it was not set to a standard?” Glass said.

LHPU is planning new additions to its training offerings, including making a remote-controlled car drive itself around obstacle courses that would represent street conditions. Another similar plan is to make an autonomous go-kart. Both projects serve as smaller scales of an autonomous car, but utilize the same important technology required, McClellan said.

What LHP is doing with functional safety training is unique, McClellan said, and something Columbus should be proud of.

“We’re making significant progress. It’s been a challenge, but I’m proud of where we’re at,” he said.

Speidel said he’s excited to learn of LHP’s progress and that he’s not surprised it has made strides in the autonomous vehicles industry because it shows they type of person Glass is.

“He truly is a great person, and what he says (he’s going to do) he does,” Speidel said.

His mother, Lisa Speidel, said the family is appreciative of the support it has received from Glass and LHP, and that they have used her son’s traumatic experience in a positive way to help prevent future accidents and injuries.

“We continue to see daily positives coming out of Josh’s accident,” she said.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”About LHP Engineering Solutions” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

What: Engineering services and technology integration company based in Columbus

Founded: June 1, 2001 by David Glass, CEO, and Ryan Hou, chairman and partner

Employees: More than 400

Columbus locations: Headquarters, 1888 Poshard Drive; LHPU, 305 Franklin St.

Other locations: Westfield, Indiana; Chicago; Illinois; Fort Collins, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; Pontiac, Michigan; Wuhan, China; Juarez, Mexico

More information: Visit lhpes.com