Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car project, has announced his departure without saying what he'll do next.
“If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky,” he said in a final statement.
His wording implied that he hadn’t yet found one. But he’ll have no trouble getting a job, either with former Google colleagues who have founded self-driving companies or with one of the many automakers and suppliers that are cobbling together teams of roboticists. For example, Urmson might find a berth at Ottomotto, the company founded early this year by his former colleague, Anthony Levandowski.
The cherry-picking of talent is apparent everywhere. At a recent shindig in San Francisco, Jan Becker represented Faraday Future, the new Chinese EV company; in a previous running of the same shindig he’d been the spokesman for Bosch. In June, Automotive News reported that Nissan was seeking 300 people for its own smart-car projects.
Apple has been raiding Google, Tesla and others for experts in electric drive and autonomous drive alike—even though Apple hasn’t even officially acknowledged that it’s interested in cars at all. And a few years earlier, Uber scooped up a huge chunk of the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University by doubling salaries and offering signing bonuses in the six figures, according to the Wall Street Journal.
With knowhow walking out the door on a regular basis, any self-driving tech company with a great idea has little choice but to put its faith in the patent system. Trade secrets won’t stay secret for long.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.