The Human Talent War Steering Driverless Cars

Car firms are spending billions on experts who can develop the right technology.



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At testing facilities around the world, global powers are racing to find the engineering breakthrough. They’re throwing thousands of scientists at the problem, sometimes plucking them right out of hallowed academia, other times enticing them from rivals with offers of money or power. There are even allegations of stealing top-secret technology. The stakes couldn’t be higher as solving the problem could well change the course of human history.

Or at least drive it in the right direction, as instead of a Cold War-era race to develop the atom bomb, this human drama is over the development of a more utilitarian offering: the driverless car. Indeed, with nearly everyone acknowledging it’s only a matter of time before the roads will be full of autonomous vehicles, carmakers and tech firms alike are spending billions to come out with the right technology. And for the most part, the money isn’t going to parts or engines, but almost entirely toward attracting top-notch PhDs and software wizards. Call it the new battleground for talent—one of the biggest ever.

By some estimates, the auto industry has spent $3 billion to $5 billion just to lock up the top tech performers in the driverless space. That doesn’t count the hundreds of millions more that technology firms big and small are spending on their own engineers to take the lead in the race to succeed first. In demand: the know-how to code software and write algorithms so a vehicle can drive on its own safely on any road and in any weather. That skill narrows the field to small group of highly qualified computer scientists, software engineers and roboticists.

“The expertise in software and artificial intelligence applicable to driverless technology is in extremely short supply,” says Carla J. Bailo, a former Nissan research executive who now does research at the Ohio State University. “Automakers and other employers are ready to hire whomever they can educate.”

Toyota alone is spending $1 billion to build a staff of 200 and create a research institute focused on driverless tech. Uber recruited about 50 Carnegie Mellon University professors and grad students to join its research center for self-driving vehicles, not far from campus, and later announced a $40 million partnership with CMU to help ensure access to future talent. Engineers at auto-parts manufacturer Bosch spent 1,400 hours and $225,000 just to make two Tesla sedans fully autonomous. (Bosch says it has around 2,000 engineers devoted to driver-assistance technology, of which driverless vehicles are a part.)

The effort, of course, makes sense, given how valuable the driverless car market may be someday. With more than 80 million traditional vehicles sold each year worldwide, even with a modest ratio of these new vehicles on the road, autonomous technology could be a $42 billion market in 2025, according to the Boston Consulting Group. But with big payoffs come big risks. There is no guarantee that even the greatest minds will produce a driverless car that the public is fully confident using. And if they do, the developer of a good but second-best technology could be forced to write off its whole effort.

On the talent end, there is also the serious matter of trying to merge two very different worlds together, the best of Detroit with the best of Silicon Valley. “If you were going to unwind the DNA strains between the two sectors … I mean, wow, are they different,” says Brad Marion, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Automotive practice.

As Marion points out, the car industry is steeped in risk avoidance—given that safety is paramount in the business and that developing new models and engines can typically take years and require enormous capital. In contrast, of course, taking chances and throwing money at projects in hopes of quick returns is a way of life in the tech world. Rarely have cultures been forced to mesh together on a project of this scale—and that’s before even discussing how to convince a Californian to spend winters in Michigan. “How you blend those together is really a unique challenge,” says Marion.

For now, of course, there are no easy answers. In some cases, carmakers have essentially bought start-up tech firms wholesale and turned them into separately run joint ventures, allowing the younger firm to keep its own high-paced culture. Others are offering executives investment stakes in the projects. Either way, as techies will tell you, it’s great to be in demand. “Software engineers are looking for the potential to do something unique or make a huge payday,” says Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for Navigant Research.

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