March 8, 2024Blog

In the spotlight: Jasmine Kitahara, Mechanical Engineer, Project Fuji

Share Article

⚑ Sunnyvale, California

What connects autonomous search & rescue aircrafts, Lightning McQueen from the Pixar movie Cars, Danica Patrick, and the Japan Mobility Show? The answer, put simply, is Jasmine Kitahara. Join us as she shares insights into shaping the future experiences of tomorrow’s Lexus vehicles and identifies the critical moment in woman’s STEM journey that holds the most potential to inspire and empower success.

Q: Can you tell us a little about what the Project Fuji team do? 

I’d say we bring brainstorms to life. Specifically for future electric Lexus cars. We have a few electric Lexus RZs here and what we do is work with our program and product managers to think through the user experience of a driver or passengers, and see what we could actually pull off in the real world. See how far we can push the hardware and the software together to give people experiences that they want, but just don’t know it yet. It could be more utility, efficiency, safety, comfort, connectivity… or a combination of all of them. The end goal really is elevating what a Lexus can do and be for people.

Q: And as a hardware engineer, how do you fit into the picture?

As a vehicle integration engineer, I work on developing and maintaining a stable hardware and software environment both on vehicle and in a lab setup to allow our software engineers to jump in and test their code.

I also help bring up testbeds, a bench simulation of our cars,  so that we can figure out how feasible it’d be to implement a specific piece of hardware or add a specific sensor to make feature concepts work. To make them real. And of course it never will work right out of the gate so we’ll go through iteration and iteration before we bring it on to an actual car, and we’ll go through iteration and iteration there too with the software engineers to get it better and get it right. I’ll then work with other hardware and software engineers to integrate and test additions to the car to confirm what we’ve simulated on the bench really works. It definitely helps that I have both a hardware and a software engineering background to help bridge the two worlds.

Q: A hardware engineer with a software engineer background? 

I always felt like I was being torn between hardware and software and I guess I just never settled for one! I'd always liked physics and math but I also really liked programming. And so when I went to Cornell University for college, there were all these project teams doing some really really cool things. The one I interviewed for and got was one that was designing, building and flying autonomous aircrafts for search and rescue missions. It was both hardware AND software all at once, all together. So even though I loved cars and originally wanted to do something in that space, it was still amazing to be doing something that connected hardware and software in a meaningful way. But after that I chose to do a focused machine learning internship with Cornell Tech… then an automated testing internship at a satellite company… and those were great learning experiences but I couldn’t help but feel like I was drifting further and further away from that best-of-both-worlds feeling I got at that original project team. 

Then in Junior year, my mismatched skillset and love for cars all fell into place when I learned that Lyft, the rideshare company, had an internship program for their autonomous vehicle division, Level 5. I thought “hey, this sounds pretty perfect.” And it was! Fast forward I finished Cornell with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Computer Science and I got an offer to come back full time and  my awesome internship manager is still my manager today - shoutout to Steven. Then we got acquired by the bigger world of Woven by Toyota and here we are!

Q: If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t worry so much about choosing a path forward. Just concentrate on what you think is cool and love doing. And if there’s something that you’d like to branch out towards and explore, let yourself do that. I think that combination of ‘passion’ and ‘curiosity’ are what’s most important. 

Q: You mentioned your love of cars - where did that originate?

Don’t laugh. From Lightning McQueen. From the Pixar movie Cars. That movie changed my life when I was small and I was all gung-ho about cars from there. I actually naively wanted to be a racecar driver growing up but that didn’t quite end up being feasible. But hey, at least I get to work with cars. A close second.

Q: In your journey so far, what moment sticks out to you as being particularly memorable?

The 2024 Japan Mobility Show where we presented IRIM for the first time. That’s our Interactive Reality In Motion concept. This was just a handful of months ago and I was part of the group that went to Japan for two weeks to build out our vehicle platform and set up the hardware and software infrastructure to enable real time demonstrations of  our concepts. 

I think what made it special was the fact that up until that point, all of my work was R&D. Everything was always mostly conceptual. But this was months of everyone’s hard work out on the showroom floor for anyone to experience and use. And hearing the positive reception there, reading the positive reception in the articles on articles that came out afterwards was definitely rewarding. As a bonus, our team also won our internal Woven by Toyota “Invention of the Year” award too! It was a great end to the year.

Q: Looking back on your journey, where do you think there were opportunities to better empower women in the technology space?

I think it’s about encouraging passions early on. When I was in 8th grade. I was in this robotics class and I loved everything about it. After the first day of class, I was pulled aside by the teacher and asked if I wanted to change electives. And it was because I was the only girl there. He didn't want me to feel uncomfortable. I understand he was trying to make sure I wasn’t feeling isolated but it hadn’t even crossed my mind until he pointed it out. And suddenly I was aware of it and questioning why it could be a problem. 

So I think when you’re in a position of influence like that, whether it’s a teacher or a parent or a manager, what’s important is to make sure that anyone in any minority capacity feels like they belong and feels like their passions and interests are being supported. That’s how you build an inclusive space and I think that’s what empowerment needs to be about.

Q: Is there anyone that you looked up to back then and continue to today? 

I would say going back to my whole love of cars, Danica Patrick. She’s mostly famous for what she accomplished in the IndyCar Series and NASCAR - being the first woman to win the IndyCar. But what I think about her is that she just kept doing what she loved and what she was interested in, and she was her own supporter in that sense. Her career success was just an output of that passion and determination and I think that’s really admirable.

Q: Looking ahead, what are you most excited about or looking forward to now?

A lot of it is under wraps I’m afraid but there's plenty of new concepts flowing through the pipeline in Fuji and the rest of Woven. A lot of those I’m really excited to see through. And then on top of that, working with Toyota as the biggest player in the auto industry and having their support is exciting just in terms of the number of people that we’re eventually going to be able to impact positively with these new ideas and concepts and features.

Q: And what about outside of work?

So we get a lease car as a perk of work… and I got a GR86. And I love going on drives with it through the Santa Cruz mountains with some friends. Yeah. Yeah. It's my first car and it's incredible.

I also like to play tennis and golf, sports from my childhood I like to keep up with. I definitely appreciate the year round warm weather here in California.

Q: So after all, you are living out that race driver dream.

I guess you could say that couldn’t you! It all comes around.