Why Are We Building A Self-Driving Car?

Udacity Self-Driving Car

Launching something like our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program is, to put it mildly, complicated. The technology, the logistics, the curriculum, the applications, the partner relationships, the structure, the finances, the messaging, the marketing, the legal implications, the support requirements, not to mention the self-driving car itself—it all combines to make the endeavor quite an undertaking! The effort is company-wide, and the immersion full-bore.

But there is more to it than just getting the program up and running.

As this whole crazy thing was transforming from idea into reality, there was an extraordinary amount of soul-searching taking place. Every single person at Udacity was thinking through what it all meant, in order to try and ensure we were doing the right thing, and truly creating something incredible for our students. Some of this took place at a personal level, and much of it transpired in small team meetings, as different groups within the company worked through their respective challenges to achieve their goals.

At certain points however, these smaller-scale self-queries became universal soul-searches, and there would be moments when every single person at Udacity had to stop and wonder, are we really doing the right thing?

Just such a moment occurred recently, when an employee posted the following question to an internal forum:

Could someone explain in more detail why we’re building a self-driving car?

I guess I just don’t understand too well what this project has to do with democratizing education. Could someone go over what the company is hoping to achieve by doing this, in terms of our values and ultimate goals as a company and a force for good in the world?

I know that when I first read this, I kind of froze inside for a moment, suddenly unsure of whether we’d somehow lost our way along the way. But then, the responses began to come in.

Because without a real car to test on, our students won’t actually be self-driving car engineers.

In order to build real competence, and for our program to provide any credibility to our graduates, they need the opportunity to work with a real self-driving car. Our Virtual Reality students can use Cardboard, our Predictive Analytics students can use Alteryx and Tableau, our Machine Learning students can build and test real models against real data, our developer students can build real web apps… But without a real car to work with, Self-Driving Car students’ educations are crippled.

And as to why we’re building one rather than buying one—what better way to build real, deep experience and expertise than to build something from the ground up?

This is just one example of the kinds of responses that were posted. But as eloquent and reasoned as that comment is, I think my personal favorite was probably this one (what a great headline!):

Because it’s so freakin awesome?

For me, looking at it from a student perspective, I would never dream of being able to actually work on a self-driving car as part of my education. It’s the ultimate experience, getting the knowledge plus being able to implement that knowledge which is one of the things we’ve been trying to do for our students. Giving them the platform to implement their knowledge in projects, and the ultimate project here for a self-driving car engineer, is to actually program a self-driving car!

I don’t know that we could ever turn that into a marketing headline, but just once, it would be kind of fun to run a campaign like that! Enroll today in our Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program, because it’s so freakin’ awesome!

One of the questions that has of course occupied us throughout the process of bringing this program to life is cost, and one of the forum responses addressed this issue head on:

My $0.02, coming from a robotics background: robotics is absurdly expensive. Being able to centralize the hardware and democratize access to it greatly reduces the costs and barriers to entry for aspiring roboticists and self-driving car engineers, alike. Isn’t that democratizing education at its heart? Providing access and enfranchising aspiring engineers who normally wouldn’t have access?

Random aside: check out the fees for FIRST Robotics: $5-6k, not including parts, travel, supplies, etc. That’s for a high-school robotics team. We’ll be able to deliver access to a $100k+ self-driving car for a fraction of that cost.

Having read this far, I was feeling pretty overjoyed. I felt total confidence in the program, and absolute adoration and admiration for my colleagues. So much so, that when I moved on to the following, the succinctness of this reply felt like a perfect summary:

Students will be able to run their code on our car. This creates an amazing opportunity for students, and gives access to technology they might not otherwise gain access to.

I love being part of an organization that takes up these issues internally, and works through them communally. I love that people ask questions, challenge assumptions, and ask for explanations. I love that people care enough to answer, and maybe best of all, I love that we appreciate one another for doing all the above. In this particular case, I especially love what the individual who first asked the question had to say in response:

Ok, see this is why I posted the question! Thank you—I understand it now a lot more.

Please know, I don’t write any of the above to try and prove how wonderful Udacity is, or to try and affirm that we’ve gotten everything right with this program. I do think Udacity is made up of passionate, caring, talented, and thoughtful individuals, and I do think the Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program is a pretty incredible offering, but the real reason I want to share this, is to try and provide a small glimpse into the kinds of self-queries we put ourselves through as we work to create new opportunities for you, our students.

It all comes down to the “Students First” ethos. That’s the idea we come back to every time we make a decision, launch an offering, engage in an experiment, contemplate a change, or do anything that will impact our students. Have we put our students first? That’s the question. It is always the question. And we will always try and make sure we can answer “yes.”

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Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree program

Build the future, today!