Academia to the Auto Industry

Baidu recently announced that it will be releasing a mass-market autonomous vehicle by 2021, shifting plans from its previous stated intention of building self-driving buses limited to well-defined routes.

Interestingly, Baidu has invested in Uber, and has stated their interest in ride-sharing partnerships. They also claim to be testing their autonomous vehicles on the road in China already.

One angle of Baidu that is especially interesting to me is their employment of Andrew Ng as their chief scientist and one of leaders of their autonomous vehicle effort.

Ng has a lot of accomplishments under his belt for a 40-year-old. He earned tenure as a computer science professor at Stanford, he co-founded the online learning company Coursera, and he is now the chief scientist at Baidu.

I took Ng’s machine learning course on Coursera, and it was terrific. He’s a great a teacher. But, as I understand that, he left academia behind to build production software at Baidu.

This is something of a trend. Google’s autonomous vehicle efforts were built by Sebastian Thrun, another Stanford computer science professor. Uber’s autonomous vehicle program largely consists of buying out the professors and scientists at Carnegie Mellon University’s vaunted robotics lab.

It’s rare for tenured professors to leave academia for industry, but it’s happened a few times now in the autonomous vehicle industry. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see more.