Joe Kolly

Joe Kolly is Steering MITRE Toward the Future of Automated Cars

By Bradley Hague

Joe Kolly is a hands-on mechanic in his off hours. At MITRE, he’s helping create our automated automotive future—even though self-driving cars may force him to hang up his wrenches.

Joseph Kolly is a car guy. He’s the proud owner of a pristine 2001 Corvette convertible and the founder of MITRE’s internal car show, which he hosts every fall. NASCAR photographs line his McLean, Virginia office, alongside a diploma for his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Buffalo. 

“I’ve been slinging wrenches with my dad since I was in kindergarten,” he says, recalling the 1969 Buick he still tinkers with today. “I became a mechanical engineer because of my interest in auto mechanics.” 

But it isn’t horsepower that fascinates Kolly, it’s safety. In MITRE’s Integrated Systems Innovation Center, Kolly is developing the tools to safely drive our transportation future. 

We are in an incredible time right now. I think automation is to automobiles what the jet engine was to aviation.

Joe Kolly, Director, Integrated Systems Innovation Center

A Love of Cars, a Focus on Safety

Kolly spent more than a decade at the National Transportation Safety Board, investigating plane crashes including high-profile air disasters like the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island. From there, he moved to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), eventually becoming chief scientist before joining MITRE in 2021.  

After retiring from NHTSA, moving to a position in the auto industry was an option, but it didn’t align with his appreciation for working in an environment that delivered objective results, free from commercial conflicts of interest.

“Having finished a career in the federal government, my sense of public service was still very strong,” Kolly says. “MITRE allows me to continue my contributions in safety research for the public good.”

Transitioning to MITRE to focus on vehicular automation—the technology that powers self-driving cars—was a dream come true. “I couldn’t believe that, at that point in my career, I got to jump into a really transformative time in this arena,” he says.  

It wasn’t just the technology that inspired him, but what the technology could accomplish.

Kolly believes MITRE’s system-of-systems approach can help shape the next generation of vehicle safety technology. 

“People are now looking at transportation safety from a broader point of view. It’s not just about a particular hardware aspect or auto aspect. It’s about how all these pieces—all the users, all the engineered systems—how do they all work together? That’s where MITRE’s strength is.”

That’s where Kolly’s focus is, too—addressing hands-on, practical questions you would expect from a former mechanic. 

“When people think of the future of transportation, they think of the end state,” he says, citing the ultimate driverless world where mobility is a service. “Realistically, we’re going to be in the transition phase for a long, long time. There’s going to be a mix of autonomous and conventional systems, and how they can all interoperate safely?” 

Exploring those complex interactions is the focus of one of Kolly’s main projects, MITRE’s Driver Research for Intelligent Vehicles and Environments (DRIVE) Lab. The lab is a human-in-the-loop simulator that explores how different transportation elements—including pedestrians, cyclists, autonomous vehicles, and traditional vehicles—coexist inside a digital space. Understanding those interactions is a vital step in ensuring the safety of our surface transportation system. And by putting real humans in the system, you get real results on human behavior.

“MITRE is committed to working in this space and helping to accelerate the future of transportation, and it’s an incredible opportunity to connect,” Kolly says. “What we’re talking about is connecting beyond government agencies. It’s about connecting government, the public sector, and the general public.”

The Future of Transportation Safety Is Now 

As much as Kolly loves working on cars himself, he’s sanguine about how hands-on today’s gearhead can be with modern vehicles. “Our vehicles have become so complex that they’re basically a black box to the consumers. We can’t diagnose problems as easily or make modifications.” 

But what comes with that, he says, is worth the loss of control. “You have an incredible performance that’s now available to everyone, not just the people who know how to modify a vehicle. You get levels of performance and safety that were unheard of even a decade ago.” 

His favorite example is lidar, or light detection and ranging, a remote sensing method. Lidar sensors can detect the distance to objects around the car, alerting drivers to cars in their blind spots, and registering when cars ahead have slowed or stopped. “Just a handful of years ago, lidar systems were like $10,000 and as big as a vacuum cleaner. Now, they’re as small as a phone and cost just hundreds of dollars,” Kolly says. “We can really use that technology to advance the overall automated system.” 

This also changes the core mindset of an auto safety engineer. Previously, safety systems were passive, focused on minimizing damage and increasing survivability in the event of a crash. Now, it’s common for vehicles to have active safety systems, like lane-keeping assistance and automatic emergency braking. “Now, we’re not even talking about surviving a crash,” Kolly adds. “We’re talking about avoiding the crashes altogether. It’s really a whole different paradigm as far as safety goes.”

While Kolly will never abandon the thrill of driving, he sees a future where automated cars could help facilitate a cross-country road trip or take stress out of commuting as worth fighting for. 

“Some people will embrace it; others may never want to be around automation. I think the choice should always be available for people. We don’t need to eliminate that choice to make progress.” 

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