Whether measured values from the test track or data streams that the vehicles record daily on the road: Dr Thomas Albin knows how to distil valuable information from complex data streams using the latest analysis and data mining tools. As part of the "Data Insights" team, he supports our vehicle engineers in making even better use of the potential of huge amounts of data – and thus in making Mercedes-Benz vehicles even more comfortable, powerful and safe. The physicist and Big Data expert tells us in his interview how he found his way from space research to Mercedes-Benz and what for him is real "rocket science".
Dr Albin, what role does data analytics play in vehicle development today?
Data has always been important for development work in the automotive industry. Today, however, thanks to digitalisation, we have much more data at our disposal than ever before, such as the information recorded by the sensors in the vehicles during every journey. In addition, we have completely new possibilities for evaluating these immense amounts of data, for example with the help of data mining, meaning the statistical analysis and identification of interesting connections and trends in large data sets. Both offer huge potential. With our "Data Insights" team, we develop tools for our engineers with which they can use these data volumes even better for their development work. By the way, please just call me Thomas.
Thank you, Thomas. What does a "tool" of this nature that you develop for R&D look like?
Our current project is a good example of this: this involves, for example, bringing together the measurement data on a dashboard that we record when our vehicles are driving on public roads. There are millions of very different measuring points. With the dashboard, our developers can access the data freely via an app and the cloud and have everything in view thanks to visualisation techniques. In the future, they will be able to analyse the data directly within the application. We are currently working on the tools for this.
With the dashboard, data can therefore be viewed directly by colleagues in vehicle development ...
Yes, the potential that lies in data can only be used if we make the data available. With our work, we want to help our different teams make even better use of their synergies in this area – and create awareness for what is possible with the help of data analytics. Solutions that work for colleagues from drive system development can also potentially be applied to the suspension – and vice versa. What is fascinating about modern data tools is that they can be used in almost all subject areas.
How can we picture your "Data Insights" team?
We are a group of programmers with very different areas of expertise: from data handling to machine learning and cloud infrastructure. Our team is still quite new and was set up a year ago. That gives us a lot of freedom. We often try out new working methods. In the "Data Dashboard" project, for example, we tested "pair programming". Two team members always worked on a code in parallel. This is a really cool method because it creates a lot of team spirit and at the same time ensures a tremendous transfer of knowledge. And when implementing new projects, we often work in sprints and with agile working methods.
At Mercedes-Benz, you are an expert in machine learning. But you actually come from a completely different subject area ...
Yes, I am actually an astro- and geophysicist (laughs). I have always been fascinated by space and everything around us. I got that from my mother, by the way. When I was a child, we used to watch the planetary and stellar constellations together at night. That is why I went on to study physics and specialised in astrophysics and geophysics for my Master's degree. At that time, I also had a lot more involvement with machine learning and data mining tools. And for my doctorate at the Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart, I then worked on the Cassini mission ...
... the NASA space probe that has been studying Saturn and its moons in more detail?
Exactly. The great thing for me was that Cassini was launched when I was still at primary school and now, as a postgraduate, I worked on the mission myself. Among other things, Cassini also had European contributions on board, such as the Cosmic Dust Analyzer, which could detect cosmic dust. We received huge amounts of data that the probe collected over many years. And thanks to digital technologies, we finally had completely new possibilities to analyse this data.
In our team we have a lot of freedom. We often try out new working methods. In our current project, for example, we are testing 'pair programming'.
And how did you, as a space scientist, ultimately find your way to Mercedes-Benz?
That has to do with my second passion. I have always been interested in cars and motor racing. When I was a teenager, if I wasn't getting up at night to look at the stars then it was probably to watch the Formula 1 races in Melbourne (laughs). And after I'd completed my doctorate, I was looking for a new challenge. I felt like doing something technical; something that I also have an affinity for. That is how I became aware of this job. Lots of data and beautiful cars, that was just the perfect combination.
What makes Mercedes-Benz special as an employer for you today?
On the one hand, the variety of topics: autonomous driving, battery technology, drive systems. There are so many applications for data analytics here. And of course the people I work with. I am always learning new things. That is what makes it so appealing to me. By the way, I think it is amazing what our colleagues in development are achieving today. There is a saying that "it's not rocket science": from my experience in both worlds, I can only say that it should really be "it's not car science" (laughs) - modern vehicles can certainly hold their own with modern rocket science.
Finally, a more personal question. If you had to give a speech about a special moment in your life, what would you talk about?
Oh, there have been a few (laughs), but one experience that I found particularly fascinating was the hike I did with my girlfriend up Stromboli. This is an active volcano in the Mediterranean. The special thing about it is that hikers can get very close to the crater and come almost within touching distance of the violent eruptions and lava flows. This is a great natural spectacle that shows us just how small we humans actually are. An insanely impressive experience.
Dr Thomas Albin (31) has been fascinated by stars and space since his childhood. That is why he initially decided to study physics in his home city of Oldenburg. He went on to write his bachelor's thesis with ESA's European Space Research and Technology Center in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands. For his Master's degree in astro- and geophysics, the physicist moved to the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he also worked at the Max Planck Institute on the Rosetta space mission. For his doctorate, Thomas Albin worked at the Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart on data from NASA's Cassini mission, before eventually joining Mercedes-Benz in 2019. These days, when the machine learning specialist in the "Data Insights" team is not ensuring that the vehicle developers have access to the best analysis tools, he loves to travel with his partner to exciting places: from the desert city of Petra to a 14,000-kilometre road trip through Australia.