Udacity's self-driving car engineering degree lures over 11,000 hopefuls

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Silicon Valley online education platform Udacity has already received more than 11,000 applicants for its so-called nanodegree in self-driving car engineering, Udacity president and Google X founder Sebastian Thrun said.

Sebastian Thrun, co-founder and CEO of Udacity, speaks on stage during a session on the future of higher education at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 in San Francisco, California September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The high number of applicants - for 250 spots in the course - underscores the pressing need for talent by technology leaders such as Alphabet’s Google and Apple, traditional car companies and automotive start-ups, as they race to develop production-ready autonomous-driving vehicles within the next decade.

High-profile, costly acquisitions driven by the desire to acquire talent, such as General Motors Co’s purchase of automotive start-up Cruise, or Uber Technologies [UBER.UL] buying self-driving trucking start-up Otto, have marked the sector over the past year.

“Self-driving car engineers are extremely in demand,” Thrun told Reuters in an interview. “The acquisition landscape is a very good way to measure the desperation. Desperation is the wrong word. But the same urgency and desire, particularly with our partners, companies like Mercedes — they really are looking for talent.”

Udacity’s nanodegree course, which costs $2,400 for three 12-week terms, begins in October. Its curriculum was developed with contributions from automaker Mercedes-Benz, chip maker Nvidia Corp and self-driving truck startup Otto, now part of Uber.

The average salary of a self-driving car engineer is $138,000, according to, which studies market salaries.

Udacity is hoping to reach and train international talent who cannot access a degree from prestigious U.S. universities with top-notch engineering and robotics departments such as M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon and Stanford.

General Motors Chief Executive Mary Barra said Thursday at a conference in Detroit that after GM acquired self-driving car startup Cruise Automation, the company saw a 20 percent increase in the number of people applying to work at the company.

Qualified software engineers are in short supply in Silicon Valley and beyond, given the breadth of companies trying to build up their software-based autonomous driving programs, whether Ford Motor Co or start-ups like or Zoox.

In just one day, applications for the Udacity nanodegree program jumped by 1,000, Thrun said, adding that many applicants are already working as software engineers: “It’s their dream to work in Silicon Valley.”

Students who make the cut for the self-driving car program will learn to write the code necessary to allow a Lincoln sedan to drive itself.

Thrun said his ambitious goal for the program is to complete the car project within six months.

Writing By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Joe White and Alan Crosby