How Uber Rapidly Grew a Self-Driving Car Project

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It’s no longer a secret that Uber wants to eventually replace its fleet of human drivers with self-driving vehicles. In order to accomplish that goal, however, the ride-sharing service will need to beat Google and every other technology and/or vehicle company that plans to put self-driving cars on the road at some point.

Most companies, faced with that sort of challenge, would use their cash reserves to go on a buying spree, and hire the best technologists to help their efforts. And that’s what Uber’s reportedly done, with one big catch—rather than pick off a few select personnel from rival companies, it poached most of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics center.

“Uber snatched up about 50 people from Carnegie Mellon, including many from its highest ranks,” reported The Verge. “That’s an unusually high number of people to leave at once, and accounted for about a third of the staff NREC [Carnegie Mellon’s Natural Robotics Engineering Center] had at the end of last year.” One of those poached was Anthony Stentz, then NREC’s director.

Under the terms of a “strategic partnership” with Carnegie Mellon, Uber will fund faculty chairs and graduate fellowships, as well as share research. But did Uber’s aggressive poaching of scientists and developers for its own Pittsburgh research center undermine the NREC’s long-term prospects? Not if Carnegie Mellon can replace those lost professionals with new, skilled ones… which could take some time.

Last year, the Brookings Institution released a report in which it delineated the factors necessary for a city to become a tech hub. Those factors included “innovation drivers” such as startups and universities, amenities, physical assets along the lines of office space and transportation options, and networking assets (firms and people who can create a positive feedback loop of advice and contacts). Pittsburgh has many of those assets, and companies like Uber are clearly taking advantage. That’s great for tech pros with in-demand skill sets, although it might not be so great for those institutions that lose the battle to retain them.

Image Credit: Carnegie Mellon/NREC

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