On the day I met Sebastian Thrun in Palo Alto, the State of California legalized self-driving cars. Gov. Jerry Brown arrived at the Google campus in one of the company’s computer-controlled Priuses to sign the bill into law. “California is a big deal,” said Thrun, the founder of Google’s autonomous-car program, “because it tends to be hard to legislate here.”
He said it with typical understatement. An idea that was in its technological infancy a decade ago, when Thrun and his colleagues were racing to develop a vehicle that could drive itself more than a few miles on a desert test course, was now being officially sanctioned by the country’s most populous state. Thrun likes to quote Google’s Larry Page, whom he calls one of his mentors: “If you don’t think big, you don’t do big things. Whether it’s a big problem or a small problem, I spend the same amount of time on it—so I might as well take a big problem that really moves society forward.”
Thrun says this not on the sprawling Google campus, with its Mandarin language courses, haircut vans and Odwalla-stocked refrigerators, but in a cluttered conference room in a nondescript building on a busy commercial strip in Palo Alto. The office looks like Startup 101: fevered notation on whiteboards, Nerf blasters at employee workstations, a cornucopia of cereal boxes lining the break rooms, T-shirts with the company logo.
This is the headquarters of Udacity, billed as the “21st-century university,” where Thrun is taking his next big crack at the next big problem: education. While he still spends a day a week at Google, where he is a fellow, and remains an unpaid research professor at Stanford University (his wife, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, is a professor in comparative literature), Udacity is the place the 45-year-old, German-born roboticist calls home.