Future mobility

German inventor Sebastian Thrun wants to teach cars to fly

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun is pictured in this handout photo
Mr. Thrun has grabbed the steering wheel of innovation. Source: Reuters

Sebastian Thrun knows how to put on a show. The mastermind behind Google’s self-driving cars wears skinny jeans and black leather sneakers with golden details. The extravagant outfit is fitting as he is, after all, somewhat of a star by now. Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, calls the German-born developer “a real hero of the USA and the whole world.”

But these are tough times for the industry, which Mr. Thrun helped create. He was “shocked and sad,” says the 50-year-old about the first fatal accident with self-driving technology. An autonomous car operated by the multi-billion dollar startup Uber killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona, last month. Shortly later, the passenger of a Tesla died in neighboring California. Mr. Thrun looks serious and buries his head in his hands. The failure of the technology clearly has an effect on him.

Mr. Thrun does not want to judge the incidents, but he warns against demonizing autonomous vehicles after the tragic events. “Artificial intelligence will not only be good. There will be situations in which, for example, a self-driving car makes the wrong decisions.” But in principle, the technology will be more reliable in the future. “We have long accepted that we are safer with machines than with humans.”

“The self-driving car will be replaced by the self-flying vehicle in five years.”

Sebastian Thrun, CEO, Kitty Hawk

When Mr. Thrun speaks, the industry listens. The entrepreneur, who was born in the German city of Solingen and emigrated to the USA in the mid-nineties, made history more than a decade ago. In 2005, he developed a driverless car, a modified blue Volkswagen Touareg R5 TDI nicknamed Stanley, which won the legendary Grand Challenge race of the US Military Research Agency DARPA. It was the first time that a robotic car successfully completed the 132-mile route through the Mojave Desert.

Mr. Thrun then spent less and less time as a professor in lecture halls at Stanford University and more time at Google. He set up the moonshot lab Google X for the company’s co-founder Sergey Brin, which helped develop Google Glass and the map service Street View, but also advanced research on autonomous cars. In 2010, Google sent computer-controlled cars onto the streets for the first time. Since late last year, Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, has been using cars without a human in the driver’s seat. Google celebrated a breakthrough.

But after the recent fatal accidents, the industry’s euphoria quickly evaporated. Uber stopped all test drives, along with car maker Toyota, startup Nutonomy and the chip manufacturer Nvidia, whose products are vital to autonomous vehicles. The recordings of the Uber vehicle’s cameras raise big questions about the reliability of the technology. The sensors seem to have not noticed the pedestrian: the car did not slow down or start an evasive maneuver, according to investigations.

With his online learning platform Udacity, Mr. Thrun aims to improve the development of self-driving technology. “Our computer processes are constantly checking themselves, and we have a security driver who keeps his hand on the steering wheel at all times,” he says. The platform, which was founded in 2012, started as a university substitute but has become a kind of adult education center, offering courses and lectures online.

The idea goes back to Mr. Thrun’s time at Stanford when the computer scientist put his lecture “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” online with remarkable success. What began as a side project quickly became a business model. At the end of February, Udacity reported sales of $70 million. Currently, 400 people work for the platform worldwide.

In Europe, Udacity trains employees from Audi, Deutsche Telekom, Airbus, Daimler and Deutsche Bahn. Investor Bertelsmann now offers 15,000 online courses at Udacity. Thrun’s other financiers include venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and Alphabet. Around 11,000 students have enrolled in autonomous car courses since 2016, 1000 of whom found new jobs after completing the program.

Lufttaxi†Cora von Kitty Hawk
Kitty Hawk flies mobility into the future. Source: dpa

“We live in a time when we cannot get on with a single education in life”, Mr. Thrun said. In view of the rapid technological advancement, he believes there is no way around reinventing yourself and lifelong learning: From recently passing his pilot’s exam to being an Uber driver for a day. “I find the idea of trying out different careers in life incredibly useful.”

He has already found his next big thing. He now devotes half of his working time to a new project: self-flying cars. Since April 2016 Vishal Makhijani manages the business at Udacity. Google co-founder Larry Page brought Mr. Thrun onboard as CEO at Kitty Hawk, a developer of electric, autonomous flying taxis.

Streets are getting increasingly crowded, even with the invention of autonomous vehicles. The airspace, however, is completely empty, he explains. “The self-driving car will be replaced by the self-flying vehicle in five years. The technology is faster, safer, cheaper and more energy efficient.”

For him, artificial intelligence is the key to the future. He believes that it will “turn us into superhumans.” Super-humans like him, from Silicon Valley’s elite, with several million in their bank accounts, can easily talk about constant learning and reinvention. Mr. Thrun is aware of that.

The negative consequences of innovation have to be discussed and solutions must be found, he says. But he does not share the fears of some of his Valley colleagues. “Artificial intelligence is more dangerous than nuclear weapons,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said recently, warning about robots “running down the street and killing people.” Mr. Thrun does not foresee that kind of danger. “I cannot imagine that we would be so stupid as to be enslaved by computer systems.”

Britta Weddeling is Handelsblatt correspondent in Silicon Valley. Stephanie Ott adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: weddeling@handelsblatt.com.

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