Rashmi Rao is changing the face of automotive technology. She’s busy building new human machine interfaces (HMI) for automotive mobility at Samsung’s HARMAN, a supplier of technology, infotainment and systems for the automotive industry. Her current position is Senior Director of Global Advanced Engineering.  

Rao’s career spans engineering Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) through to creating e-reader displays. But that’s not all, she’s a stalwart advocate for STEM education and women in technology. And she’s recently been inducted into the Women In Technology Hall of Fame.

Auto Futures recently interviewed Rao, who enthusiastically told us her story and her views on displays and HMI design.

She started out in Bangalore, India, the daughter of a banker and an accountant. At engineering school Rao met her husband, Ajay John. She calls him the ‘biggest cheerleader throughout her career’.

She then attended the University of Texas under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Dr. Alan MacDiarmid where she worked on developing carbon-nanotube-based sensors.

“It was the most productive time in my life,” says Rao. “There were researchers from multiple disciplines, electrical engineers, physicists and chemists, looking at making devices.” Using an inkjet printer with sonic coated ink and transparency paper they created nanotube-based sensors that detected nerve-agent stimulants.

Then at GE, she worked on carbon nanotube sensors to detect CO2 for appliances. A friend, Suryaprakash Ganti, who left GE to work with a startup called Iridigm, invited her out the Silicon Valley.

“That was back when the Motorola Razor was the top phone, we had 2G and we wanted to create a display that was low in energy use and easy to read.”

Rao worked on MEMS-based reflective displays at Qualcomm QMT after it acquired Iridigm.

“It was very difficult, but we were the first to develop a reader with front lighting,” says Rao who is proud of the front-lit Kyobo e-reader that was released in South Korea. It was the world’s first e-reader to include mirasol display technology. The display is readable even in bright sunlight with high refresh rates.

“What I’m good at is connecting the dots from technology, application, implementation to create new things out of it,” says Rao. “That’s what I enjoy doing.”

While at Qualcomm she co-founded QWISE: Qualcomm Women in Science and Engineering.

Looking for New Challenges

At Apple, she learned about the company’s “strong design culture, moving millions of pieces and to get a sense of the world of manufacturing.” Then she looked for a new challenge in the automotive sector. “I started from ground zero to prove people can disrupt themselves,” she says.

In 2013, her cousin, Jyothsna Kumaraswamy, who was working in the headphone and speaker division of HARMAN introduced her to the company’s automotive leadership.

“I came to learn from the experts and share what I learned in Silicon Valley,” says Rao who is implementing new technology and systems for HARMAN

In 2016, after the Samsung acquisition, HARMAN and Samsung worked to bring cadmium-free quantum-dot infused LED (QLED) for low power consumption and good color depth to the automotive market.

“For electric vehicles we have to optimise energy power and QLED is perfect for that,” says Rao who demonstrated at CES 2018 how few users could tell the difference between OLED and QLED displays.

She is now leading innovation in how HARMAN develops products for the automotive industry. “It’s not one size fits. Bringing a user-centered design process into designing products will be a key differentiator in the dynamic automotive market.”

Rao also lead the development of the first touchscreen display for use with thick gloves for motorcycles.

And she works on HARMAN’s partnership with Square One Education Network and 1000 Dreams Scholarship advocating STEM education.

“People should see more diverse faces in tech for more success options,” says Rao, “So that they can realize, I look like them.”

Rao received Diversity Journal’s ‘Women Worth Watching in STEM’ 2017 award. She was also inducted into the ‘Women in Technology Hall of Fame’ by Women in Technology International (WITI) in 2018. Rao remains humble and is always looking for ways to transform automotive from her technology background. 

“We need to take automotive to the next level and keep up with the millennial generation,” she muses.

Last year, when Rao was test driving a luxury SUV, the first thing she did was try to touch the screen, which was not touch-enabled. That was a wow moment for her.