Autonomous Driving Tech: Still a Viable Career?

What if your hopes for autonomous driving are wildly overblown?

For years, technology executives have told the public that self-driving vehicles would soon clog the nation’s roadways. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, for example, predicted way back in 2015 that his electric cars would have full autonomy by 2017. Meanwhile, court documents showed that Uber thought it would have tens of thousands of robot-powered taxis on the road by this point—a future that failed to happen.

But the path toward fully autonomous vehicles has proven costlier and far more difficult than tech’s most optimistic minds predicted. Real-road testing is still underway in many parts of the country, and Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet) has a small self-driving taxi service operating in the Phoenix suburbs. However, the collective dream of millions of vehicles safely cruising the nation’s highways and byways without human intervention—that now seems years, if not decades away. 

Part of that slowness might have to do with the difficulty of creating a smooth, sleek professional service from sometimes-buggy technology. “We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.”

The other factor: human insanity. It’s one thing to train a machine to navigate a grid of city streets. It’s another for a software-powered vehicle to do so while dodging double-parkers, drivers distracted by their phones, bicyclists who refuse to signal, speedy jaywalkers, and people outright breaking traffic laws.

When tech’s CEOs predicted that autonomous vehicles would hit the road in a mass-market way by 2017 or so… well, maybe they should have said 2027.

Jobs in Autonomous Driving: Worth Pursuing?

For those interested in building out autonomous-driving technology as a career, these industry setbacks might cause some alarm. Should you pursue a career in something that might not hit the mainstream for another decade or two—if ever?

The answer, of course, hinges largely on your individual tolerance for risk. If you like the idea of helping pioneer a nascent technology segment, and you don’t mind plunging into the unknown, then self-driving cars may prove an exciting career choice. But if you’re a fan of well-established technologies and career stability, this tech branch might not be your best choice; sure, the biggest tech firms (and car companies) will end up throwing billions of dollars into these autonomous-tech initiatives, but even a mega-giant like Apple has been known to abruptly shift direction and lay off engineers.

It never hurts to explore an underlying technology to see if it interests you, and autonomous driving is no exception. Udacity offers a self-driving car engineer nanodegree, and Udemy and Coursera have similar products. If you’re interested in a more academic approach, MIT has videos and slides from its “Deep Learning for Self-Driving Cars” coursework. That should give you an idea if this particular technology segment is right for you.