Is Autonomous Driving Still Worth Pursuing as a Career?

When it comes to self-driving cars, the future hasn’t arrived nearly as quickly as some tech pundits and CEOs predicted. Sure, Waymo and Tesla have put semi-autonomous cars on the road, and other firms are pouring billions of dollars into autonomous driving initiatives—but it seems like we’re still years away from millions of cars navigating the nation’s highways and byways without human intervention. 

Given the difficulties in rolling out truly autonomous vehicles, as well as Uber’s much-publicized decision to sell off its money pit of a self-driving division, it’s worth examining whether this technology segment presents a viable, lucrative career path for technologists. 

First, it’s important to note that autonomous software extends far beyond an automobile context. With the rise of artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning, companies everywhere are examining how to make all kinds of devices “smarter.” According to Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes job postings from across the country, companies post only a few thousand jobs for autonomous-systems experts per month—but the segment is expected to grow an astounding 39.3 percent over the next decade. 

Moreover, the median salary for technologists who specialize in autonomous systems currently stands at $97,000 per year, and that’s before you factor in experience and skills specialization, which can substantially increase compensation. A few years ago, for example, Google paid some of its self-driving specialists millions of dollars for hitting certain key milestones in autonomous-vehicle development—so much money, in fact, that a few of those employees decided to retire

For a typical technologist specializing in autonomous systems, unlocking that kind of massive payday seems unlikely (although not impossible). Nonetheless, compensation is still strong, especially at firms building the next generation of autonomous driving. According to levels.fyi, which crowdsources compensation data, software engineers at Cruise, a GM subsidiary focused on building self-driving vehicles, can earn an average of $152,000 per year in salary, along with $29,250 in stock and a bonus of $35,500.

At Tesla, which has been aggressive about integrating self-driving technology into its electric cars, salaries for engineers at the P2 level average $131,778, with a bonus of $1,111 and stock awards totaling $33,778. (It’s not exactly the most relaxing job, though.)

According to Glassdoor, which also crowdsources compensation data, base pay for software engineers averages $153,462 per year, with additional compensation of roughly $27,715. For other, associated roles, including staff software engineer and senior hardware engineer, compensation is much higher, often exceeding $200,000 per year. 

In other words, companies are still paying significant amounts of money to software developers and engineers who’ve mastered computer vision and other, vital aspects of autonomous driving. In addition, it seems like demand for technologists who’ve mastered autonomous-systems development will only rise over the next several years. Whether cars or toasters, it seems like there’ll be a solid market for making machines “smarter” for quite some time to come.