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Ex-Googler Sebastian Thrun says the going rate for self-driving talent is $10 million per person

Now he wants to train more engineers for the fast-growing industry, since there are simply not enough.


When Sebastian Thrun started working on self-driving cars at Google in 2007, few people outside of the company took him seriously.

“I can tell you very senior CEOs of major American car companies would shake my hand and turn away because I wasn’t worth talking to,” said Thrun, now the co-founder and CEO of online higher education startup Udacity, in an interview with Recode earlier this week.

A little less than a decade later, dozens of self-driving startups have cropped up while automakers around the world clamor, wallet in hand, to secure their place in the fast-moving world of fully automated transportation.

And these companies are hungry for talent and skill sets many don't have.

“Uber has just bought a half-a-year-old company [Otto] with 70 employees for almost $700 million,” Thrun said. “If you look at GM, they spent $1 billion on its acquisition of Cruise. These are mostly talent acquisitions. The going rate for talent these days is $10 million.”

Thrun means per person, a lofty number which is likely to be getting even larger with time and even more demand.

Now, the man dubbed by some as the “father of self-driving cars” wants to help see what he started at Google all the way through.

“I’m surrounded by companies that are desperate for talent,” said Thrun. “Non-traditional players are joining the field and they’re all building substantial teams. But the skill set to build a self-driving car is a multidisciplinary skill set [and] that broad skill set is just not there.”

Thrun, who left the search giant in 2014, and the team at Udacity is now working with Didi Chuxing, Mercedes-Benz, Nvidia and Otto to architect a self-driving “nanodegree” program. Udacity, which Thrun founded in 2012, offers higher education programs that it creates alongside its partners.

Udacity’s partnership comes at a time that even more companies are beginning to launch their own self-driving pilots. Uber and Volvo started testing their self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh. NuTonomy is testing its self-driving ride-hail service in Singapore. By 2020, there will be at least 10 players publicly experimenting with self-driving technology.

It’s why Tesla, Google, Apple and Faraday Future are constantly poaching engineers from each other and why Uber ransacked Carnegie Mellon’s famed robotics lab. There simply aren’t enough people who are equipped with the knowledge and skills required to automate a vehicle. In fact, the only machine learning program in the world, according to Thrun, is at Carnegie Mellon, which still isn’t churning out talent fast enough to meet the industry’s demand.

“It’s a very simple instance of a law that is fundamentally true: Technology is moving so fast, that by definition when something becomes hot, the skill set doesn’t exist,” Thrun said.

While Udacity’s program is not formally accredited — it’s affordable enough that people would not necessarily need government loans — the program aims to equip its students with the specific credentials the company they want to work at requires. And there’s a full money-back guarantee, if you don’t find a job.

In collaboration with its four partners, Udacity crafted the curriculum for the self-driving program around one single question: What would it take for these graduates to get a job at one of the partnering companies?

The “professors,” who are either Udacity staff or are experts from partnering companies, work together to create projects for the Udacity students to work on. One project the students will be working on will require them to work with and build automated technology on a Udacity car.

In a matter of nine months, a new pool of self-driving talent is born.

Since opening the applications for the self-driving program on Tuesday, Udacity has gotten 4,000 applicants. The company is only admitting 250 students to start but will expand the program in the future.

Thrun estimated that the tech industry alone is in need of about 5,000 engineers. All regions considered, from Detroit to Germany to Japan, Thrun said companies may be in need of something on the order of 20,000 engineers.

In a sense, it’s a new problem for the auto industry. Axel Gern, Mercedes Benz head of autonomous driving in North America, has been working on automation for 18 years. In that time, he said, he hasn’t seen as much demand for self-driving technology talent as he has in the past two years.

“There’s a huge hype around autonomous driving. There are many competitors in the field,” Gern told Recode in an interview.But the number of people you can hire right out of university who are being educated in the field are limited. You’re looking for experts in computer vision, robotics, intelligent systems, artificial intelligence and so on.”

But, for tech it’s an ongoing issue. Thrun sees an opportunity to continue programs like this as new and unseen technologies become more popular — from drones, which much of the self-driving program’s teachings could be applied to, to virtual and augmented reality.

“The big secret behind this is the top-tier colleges only let in a small number of competent people,” Thrun said. ‘"There are so many other competent people. This program is for those people.’

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