There’s no way to get a degree in “self-driving car engineering” — at least from your typical university.
Today, engineers might come from the automative industry or they might be fresh out of MIT with a specialization in machine learning.
The lack of a formal education in the area is something Sebastian Thrun, the so-called “father of the self-driving car”, knows from when he started on the project in the early days of Google’s moonshot division. Even at Google, he had to poach from other departments and teach people on the job, he told Business Insider.
“From big companies like Mercedes to small companies, the biggest issue is the right talent,” Thrun said. “There is a dearth of educated people.”
That’s why Thrun has created a nine-month “nanodegree” program in self-driving cars through his online education startup, Udacity.
A s part of the program, Udacity has signed on hiring partners including Mercedes Benz, Didi Chuxing, Nvidia, and Otto, which was just acquired by Uber. All of the partners, with the exception of Didi, also helped design the curriculum so graduates will have learned the skills they hopefully need to succeed at those companies when they finish it.
A large part of what precipitated the talent drought is how fast the self-driving car revolution has come upon the industry. When Thrun started working on it decades ago, it was still considered a “moonshot.” Now, companies from Apple to Uber to major automakers are working on some version of it and are in need of engineers.
Because of Udacity’s global reach, Thrun is hoping to jump-start the next crop of self-driving car experts and not just rely on the limited trickle coming from programs like MIT and Stanford.
“It’s even worse if you are passed university days,” Thrun said about learning the skills for the fast-paced industry. “We reach people of all ages, of all geographies.”
In 2012, Thrun founded Udacity as what he describes as the “societal moonshot” of democratizing tech education.
Although Udacity initially offered a handful of online classes completely free of charge, the team pivoted a little over a year ago after seeing dismal course completion rates to a new “Nanodegree” program targeted at landing students jobs in areas like front-end web developer, Android developer, and data analyst.
The self-driving car program doesn’t guarantee a job in the end, but its partners have promised to interview graduates coming out of it.
“It’s really hard to find good people. It’s just become exponentially in the last year,” Thrun said, citing the competition specifically between Uber and Google. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to happen. …The improvements are staggering, and it’s going to be a big industry.”