Driving Into the Future of the Unknown

Ahn (M.D.M. ’06) seems too warm and approachable to be an agent of radical change. Yet those are the traits that she shares with her signature project, the Waymo Driver: a combination of both hardware and software that, when applied, looks like a sailboat wearing a fedora, but that aspires to make your car drive itself.

Ahn didn’t set out to design autonomous vehicles, or to work at Waymo, which spun out from Google in 2016 and, like Google, is a subsidiary of parent company Alphabet. But she did plan to devote her career to tackling complex challenges with society-altering implications, and the futuristic world of autonomous vehicles certainly qualifies.

“I enjoy [projects] with lots of technology and complexity, and making new things—that’s what gets me,” Ahn says. “I’ve always enjoyed the chaos [of pursuing an undefined solution]. That’s actually the most exciting time for me. When you’re able to create something new for people to experience, it’s so satisfying.”

Ahn’s career has included three such industry-shaking challenges. In 2001, after completing her first master’s degree in industrial design in her native South Korea, she took a job at LG Electronics, where she worked on digital electronics such as home-theater products in the midst of the high-definition revolution. Then, after five years there, she moved to Chicago to pursue a second graduate degree at Illinois Tech’s Institute of Design. She stayed in the area to take a job at Motorola, a flip-phone behemoth that was racing to adapt to the smartphone era.

“YJ was always more than a designer. She was not only good at solving problems, but also at understanding and defining the problems that needed to be solved, even on projects that were complex and ambiguous,” says Peter Pfanner, Ahn’s supervisor at Motorola. “She’s a prototype for what designers need to be in the future, and for what design needs to be able to do.”

This story was featured in the fall 2021 issue of Illinois Tech Magazine. You can read the full story on the Illinois Tech Magazine website

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