Driving southbound on the 101 freeway through San Francisco, one may notice the following billboard. “Self-driving education,” it reads. Those three words connect to several ideas close to Udacity’s mission: help learners acquire new skills to pursue tech careers of their desire, and let them complete courses at their own pace (as long as they pay the monthly fee.)
Now the punny billboard has a triple entendre: Udacity has formally launched its Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree that aims to teach students subjects including computer vision, sensor fusion and controllers. Students will also get to run their code on an autonomous vehicle owned by Udacity.
To develop the curriculum, the company enlisted help from Mercedes-Benz, Nvidia and Otto (recently acquired by Uber). “Obstacles [that] remain to be overcome on the way to autonomous driving for everyone,” Mercedes-Benz noted in its press release, include optimizing sensors to deal with extreme weather conditions and predict people’s intentions. Later this month, the automobile manufacturer will open a new office in Sunnyvale that will house self-driving car engineers.
All three companies, along with Didi Chuxing (which acquired Uber’s operations in China), may hire graduates from this program. But unlike what Udacity’s billboard may suggest, the “get a job or your money back” guarantee will not apply. (While attractive, Udacity’s promise flirts with flouting rules set by California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, which state that institutions “shall not promise or guarantee employment.”)
This Nanodegree offering should not surprise those who have followed Udacity’s growth from its beginnings on the Stanford “Farm” to a unicorn startup valued by investors at over $1 billion. Before starting the company in 2012, Sebastian Thrun (who recently stepped down as Udacity’s CEO but remains its president and chairman), led Google’s efforts to build self-driving cars. (He will be among the instructors in this Nanodegree program.) In 2013 the company pivoted away from offering university courses, preferring instead to prepare students directly for technical careers.
The Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree consists of three 12-week semesters, each of which costs $800. Applications to enroll are open until Sept. 27; accepted students will be notified by Oct. 3. Spots will be in extremely high demand; more than 30,000 students have already expressed interest since the program was first teased in July.