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Autonomous

Lyft, Udacity Training Self-Driving Car Engineers

by Sam Chase
One of the biggest challenges for any new tech industry is finding a workforce with the skills required to operate in a sector that previously did not exist.

It takes significant upfront investments of time, education and money to get workers up to speed. In the emerging field of self-driving cars, it's not surprising then that this is a particularly pronounced challenge.

For starters, it's a wide field with many different players.

There are many different job opportunities at some of America's biggest automakers and tech companies. The top of the Fortune 500 list is littered with companies that have autonomous vehicle ambitions, and they're all competing to fill a large number of positions.

However, it isn't a field in which anyone can walk in off the street and get a job. Specific and advanced skills are required. It goes without saying that not just anyone can build a car that drives itself.

The former leader of Google's AV project (now known as Waymo), Sebastian Thrun, saw this supply-demand issue up close and, after leaving Google, he decided to do something about it. Thrun launched Udacity, an online vocational school of sorts that offers "nanodegree" programs for those looking to acquire skills in the hopes of entering the self-driving car industry.

In the way that Code Academy trains anyone to become a web developer, Udacity hopes to do the same for autonomous vehicle engineers.

Udacity got a major boost in September, when it was announced that the company was partnering with Lyft to provide funding for 400 scholarships for students to receive certification in the engineering of self-driving cars via an introductory nanodegree program.

"There is a significant talent shortage in this new burgeoning area of self-driving cars," Lyft chief strategy officer Raj Kapoor told Forbes. "Sebastian is considered the godfather of self driving and helped to put the curriculum together, so it gets people the basics and off the ground right away."

A key phrase here is "the basics."

Traditionally, Udacity's programs have been geared towards accomplished engineers or programmers who were experienced in related fields. Through the new Lyft-sponsored program, beginners will have the opportunity to gain access to work in this sector.

"When we launched Self-Driving Car, we thought it was more of a niche product, because very few kids go to college thinking 'I want to become a self-driving car engineer,'" Thrun told TechCrunch. "But it became this unbelievably successful thing for us, not just from a student perspective, but also from an industry perspective. But the one complaint we got from lots of our student base was 'Look, this is really tough.'... With the program we have right now, you have to be a really good software engineer just to get through it."

According to Kapoor, the scholarships will target demographics that are disproportionately absent in tech.

"Technology is not as diverse as we would like, especially around underserved communities, whether it's by gender, like women, or if it's by race, for example African-Americans and Hispanic Latino communities, and Native Americans -- all those are below the percentage of the population in terms of representation," he told TechCrunch. "And so we felt like, is there a way to get some of those people attracted into this, why don't we give away 400 scholarships over the next year targeted to those people.

Scholarships will cover the $800 value of the course, which begins October 10 and will last for four months.

With its own ambitions in autonomous vehicles, it wouldn't be a surprise to see some Lyft-sponsored Udacity graduates go on to become actual Lyft employees down the road.

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