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Self-driving talent is fleeing Google and Uber to catch the autonomous-driving gold rush

With every defection, Uber and Google are feeding the fire of their own competition.

Transportation Sec'y Foxx Discusses Future Transportation Trends With Google CEO Justin Sullivan / Getty

As competition in the self-driving industry — nascent as it may be — gets steeper, top talent from existing and established players are increasingly jumping ship to start or join fresh-faced autonomous tech startups hungry for a piece of the pie.

Engineers skilled and experienced in the field of autonomous technology are hard to come by so it’s no surprise companies like Ford, General Motors, and Uber are willing to pay top dollar to scoop them up through lofty acquisitions. And these engineers are jumping at the opportunity.

Obvious reasons aside, talent retention is crucial for companies staking their reputation on the progress of its self-driving technology — namely Uber, Google, and Tesla — because with every major defection a new competitor has been born.

Uber for instance has lost around 20 of its top self-driving engineers in the months since the company acquired self-driving trucking startup Otto in August 2016. Sources attribute part of that to internal tension between the self-driving arm’s cars and trucks teams.

Several of those top engineers have started new companies. The entity’s former engineering lead Peter Rander, poached from Carnegie Mellon in 2015, joined a former Google self-driving engineer Brian Salesky and started Argo.ai. Joining him is another well-respected Uber self-driving engineer, Brett Browning. At least nine other former Uber engineers and three other former Googlers have joined Rander and Browning at Argo.

Why does that matter? Ford acquired a majority stake in the company. In other words, Uber’s and Google’s loss is Ford’s gain.

However, Uber has also benefited from self-driving defections. The company’s now head of autonomous efforts Anthony Levandowski left Google’s self-driving arm in January of 2016 before starting Otto — which Uber later acquired. Levandowski’s three co-founders are all ex-Googlers and are joined by at least five other top Alpbabet engineers. (The number is likely much larger than that at this point. )

That’s apparently a sticking point for Alphabet: Uber filed a motion for arbitration in response to Waymo’s lawsuit yesterday that revealed that Waymo accused Levandowski of using confidential salary information to poach talent away from Alphabet as early as October 2016.

From Tesla, Otto hired Andrew Gray — who had a brief stint at Cruise Automation, now owned by General Motors, as the vice president of engineering — as the company’s director of engineering.

Google’s self-driving arm, now called Waymo, also lost its CTO Chris Urmson late last year. Urmson went on to found autonomous tech startup Aurora, as we first reported. Urmson has since poached engineers away from Uber and Tesla. Aurora has hired Drew Bagnell, Uber’s former head of perception and computer vision, as well as a former senior software engineer at the ride-hail company Jean-Sebastien Valois, Uber’s former engineering manager Michael Bode and at least five others.

In fact, according to job listings, Aurora will have headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., and Pittsburgh, Penn., where Uber’s self-driving headquarters and many of the engineers Aurora poached are based.

From Tesla, Urmson has lured away the company’s head of Autopilot Sterling Anderson, who allegedly attempted to recruit talent away from his former employer. In short order, the electrical vehicle manufacturer filed a lawsuit against Aurora claiming the company attempted to poach its engineers.

Lastly, we know less about this startup but another duo from Alphabet’s self-driving arm — Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu — left to create an artificial intelligence and robotics company called Nuro.ai — which will also work on autonomous technology.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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