Michael Peredo never took any self-driving technology classes, but he’s a longtime software engineer with experience in various industries, including working at Mercedes-Benz’s research office in Silicon Valley. Now he’s a senior solutions engineer at Velodyne, a maker of lidar, which is used in many autonomous vehicles’ sensing systems.
“Many of us learn best by doing,” said Peredo, who recently showed off near Velodyne’s San Jose office how lidar can “see” and map the environment outside a vehicle. “Hey, you get paid in the process.”
But not everyone has Peredo’s experience — he had stints at Hewlett-Packard, nCube, DHL and more — and that’s where programs like the self-driving “nanodegree” offered by online education company Udacity come in.
George Sung was a computer-chip designer at AMD when he decided the future was in machine learning and artificial intelligence. So he quit his job, earned a self-driving nanodegree within a year and landed a gig at BMW’s technology office in Mountain View.
Sung said the projects he worked on at Udacity, a for-profit company that focuses on providing continuing tech education online, helped him build a strong portfolio to show potential employers. His job now focuses on reinforcement learning, an area of machine learning, and he worked last year on highway lane changes. “This year, we’re working on another cool project that’s not public yet,” he said.
Udacity, which in 2016 added to its offerings nanodegrees in self-driving engineering, says its program has enrolled more than 21,000 students in more than 120 countries. Graduates have ended up at Audi, BMW, Bosch, Jaguar Land Rover, Lyft, Nvidia, and Mercedes-Benz, which are all working on autonomous vehicle technology.
Udacity recently added a program in sensor fusion — taking the information gathered by a car’s sensors to figure out what’s going on around it — for autonomous vehicles, which company founder Sebastian Thrun called “the most important field of all” in the industry during an interview at the company’s Mountain View offices.
Thrun would know. He led the Stanford team that built the self-driving car that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, then was hired to lead the creation of a self-driving car division at Google, which was eventually spun off as Waymo.
Now, Thrun says, “No self-driving company I know doesn’t have someone from Udacity on their team.”
Mercedes, which employs more than 40 nanodegree program graduates globally, helped Udacity design its original self-driving curriculum in 2016, and partnered with the platform on its new sensor fusion program.
Michael Maile, manager of the sensor fusion and localization team at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America in Sunnyvale, says hiring in the rising industry can be a challenge.
Job site Indeed said it saw a 62.5 percent increase in searches from May 2016 to May 2019 for the following terms: autonomous car, autonomous vehicle, self-driving car and self-driving vehicle. A search for those terms this week yielded at least a couple thousand job openings in California, ranging from engineering positions with salaries of about $140,000 a year to autonomous vehicle operators who get paid about $25 an hour.
“You can hire robotics graduates and over time train them as software engineers,” Maile said. “Or you can go the other route: Get experienced software engineers, then use a Udacity nanodegree” to train them.
That’s how Megha Maheshwari, a software engineer with experience working on automotive technology in Singapore and Germany, became a self-driving car engineer at Volvo’s R & D tech center in Mountain View.
When her husband’s job brought them to the United States, she had to take a break from working while waiting for her visa. She came across Udacity’s inaugural self-driving nanodegree program, and praised it for preparing her to work in the industry. She said the study groups and hands-on time with Udacity’s test vehicle for which she and other students wrote code were also helpful.
The program — which takes an average of six months to complete and costs a couple thousand dollars — taught her the “nitty-gritty details” of self-driving technology, she said during a recent ride in Carla, a self-driving Audi, in a parking lot next to Udacity’s offices.
As cars continue to move toward autonomy, it may also help the self-driving industry that younger students are being exposed early to technology used in autonomous vehicles as they think about what they’d like to be when they grow up. Velodyne partnered with PilotCity, which brings businesses and local city agencies to Bay Area high school classrooms, introducing them to self-driving cars and judging their lidar-related projects during the school year. Over the summer, Velodyne is sponsoring up to 10 Bay Area students from Berkeley and Antioch as interns for gigs with that program, said PilotCity CEO Derick Lee.