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Udacity Taps Into Demand for Self-Driving Cars With New Curriculum

July 25, 2016, 10:30 PM UTC
Photo: Courtesy of Google

As automakers, startups, and technology companies race to develop self-driving cars, demand is soaring for workers who can create the brains for these autonomous vehicles.

At least, that’s what online education startup Udacity is betting on. The company plans an online course for people who want to become a self-driving car engineer.

Students in the one-year online class will work on interactive projects in computer vision and robotic controls, as well as other software development skills required to build and develop self-driving car technology. Salaries for engineers with these skills are $68,800 to $210,000, according to Udacity, with an average pay of $138,000.

Udacity’s bet on self-driving cars, promoted on both its website and through Twitter, comes at a time of huge investment in the industry. Tesla (TSLA), Google, Ford, General Motors (GM), as well as startups including NuTonomy, Local Motors, and are all working on self-driving car technology in one form or another.

Udacity says on its website that students in the program will master technologies that are “going to shape the future.” Students at schools like Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley can already take classes in various subjects such as artificial intelligence related to self driving cars for credit. Some of these universities even have research partnerships with automakers that are developing autonomous vehicles. Toyota’s relationship with MIT and Stanford is just one example. Udacity is different because many of its courses are designed as continuing education for people who already have a post-graduate degree and want to add new skills.

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Unlike some of Udacity’s other classes, this one for autonomous vehicles is not for beginners. Udacity’s course description says students should have a background in probability, statistics, and basic linear algebra as well as experience with Python or another other scripting language.

Job openings in Google’s X division, which is leading the company’s push into self-driving cars, confirms that experience is required to get hired. Candidates for a robotics engineer position at Google, for example, must have a master’s degree in computer science, robotics, or equivalent practical experience. They must also have hands-on expertise in one or all of these areas: computer vision and machine learning along with lasers or-infrared sensitive radar.

The curriculum for the self-driving car course was developed by Sebastian Thrun, a Google roboticist and Stanford professor who founded Udacity in 2012. Thrun stepped down as Udacity’s CEO in April, but remains at the company’s president and chairman. Vishal Makhijani, the company’s chief operating officer, took over the CEO job.

The course about self-driving car technology is part of Udacity’s nanodegrees, a paid certification course designed to train people for software development and other technical jobs. It’s unclear when the classes will start (Udacity’s website merely says coming soon) or what they will cost (other nanodegree programs are $199 per monthly). While there’s no guarantee that an Udacity student will get a job, Udacity touts its partnerships with tech companies like Google as a selling point to prospective students.

What it’s like to be in a self-driving car:

Udacity initially partnered with colleges and offered free courses online. When those partnerships failed, Udacity partnered with Facebook and Google to offer courses and certifications for workers who want to learn new tech skills.

The company introduced the “nanodegree” in 2014, and earlier this year, expanded the program from the U.S. to India. Udacity raised $105 million in new funding last November, pushing the company’s theoretical value to around $1 billion.