Respected professor, pioneer in engineering Pravin Varaiya dies at 81

mug of prof emeritus pravin varaiya
Berkeley Engineering/Courtesy
Professor emeritus Pravin Varaiya died June 10 at 81 years old, leaving behind a legacy of innovation in engineering, self-driving vehicles and transportation systems.

Pravin Varaiya, an EECS professor emeritus, died June 10 at the age of 81, according to a statement released by UC Berkeley’s engineering department.

Varaiya’s legacy includes his pioneering research in self-driving vehicles, the automated highway system and the transportation system, according to the statement. He began teaching at UC Berkeley after receiving his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1966. During his tenure on campus, he was a professor of both engineering and economics.

“When you spend time with him you get the impression that time stops, that he had nothing else to do in his life but listen to you and try to help you,” said Jean Walrand, former campus professor of EECS and student of Varaiya.

A sign would hang on Varaiya’s office door that read, “Do not knock, if the door is unlocked, just open, just come in” — and more often than not, that door was open, according to Walrand.

Walrand said Varaiya was a masterful teacher who taught through example and was fascinated by conceptual mathematical and engineering systems. Walrand, who chose to come to UC Berkeley for his doctorate because of Varaiya, said every student felt like his favorite because of the respect he showed them and his constant willingness to answer questions.

“With Pravin’s passing, the world lost an influential pioneer who left an indelible mark in fields that include smart energy, urban economics and transportation systems,” said Tsu-Jae King Liu, the dean of the College of Engineering.

Varaiya was also renowned for his impact on automated transportation. According to campus EECS professor Alexandre Bayen, Varaiya’s work with the Institute of Transportation Studies placed UC Berkeley at the forefront of self-driving cars in the mid-1990s and modern traffic control systems.

In partnership with the California Department of Transportation, Varaiya led the Performance Measurement System, or PeMS, which created the largest sensor network to monitor freeway traffic, according to Bayen. It was Varaiya’s work that led to the creation of the first self-driving cars, Bayen noted.

“Pravin was a control theorist who revolutionized many fields in electrical engineering and computer science,” Bayen said. “And he also revolutionized a lot of fields in transportation.”

According to Walrand, in addition to Varaiya’s contributions to the field of transportation, Varaiya also studied high-performance communication networks and is respected for his work on mathematical systems. Walrand said Varaiya’s contributions as a professor are “massive,” and many of his former students have gone on to become prominent engineers or professors.

Described as a “true intellectual” by Walrand, Varaiya cared deeply about people, politics and society. Walrand remembered how Varaiya was always a great conversationalist who would really listen.

“I owe him my career,” Walrand said. “That’s the case not only for me, but the impact he has had on my life has been unique. I am extremely grateful.”

Contact Rae Wymer at [email protected], and follow them on Twitter at @rae_wymer.