A new CNBC show called “The Brave Ones,” highlighting and commemorating movers and shakers in society, is putting out an episode about Sebastian Thrun. The engineer, former Googler, and education innovator was fairly under the radar until a chance encounter entangled him with Google. Co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin discovered and hired Google X cofounder Sebastian Thrun while in disguise, checking out a promising event surrounding autonomous cars, the DARPA Grand Challenge. Thrun and his team at Stanford just happened to be entering their autonomous car, named Stanley, that year. It wound up being the first to make it across the finish line of the grueling 132 mile off-road course. Nobody knew that Page and Brin had been there all along, going incognito to avoid undue attention. They approached Thrun and his people after the race to talk about the technology and future collaboration, but didn’t extend the invitation to come on board quite yet.
The next revision of Thrun’s driverless car design was not only made to be entirely autonomous, but was also outfitted with multiple sensors and cameras that allowed it to take pictures and video of things all around it. This design was debuted in 2007, and ended up catching Google’s attention. It became the bread and butter of Google Maps’ Street View feature. This time, it was Thrun who approached Google, and they accepted his idea to use the decked-out vehicle for Street View imagery. Since then, the car has been replicated, tweaked, and multiplied; there were well over 250 out on the roads as of 2012. It was a bit further back, in 2010, that Thrun co-founded Google X, along with Yoky Matsuoka and Astro Teller. The department went on to either create or have a hand in all of Google’s more outlandish projects, dubbed “moonshots.” Examples include the likes of Project Loon, an internet-beaming balloon initiative. In 2011, Thrun gave up his status as a full time professor at Stanford to devote most of his time to running Google’s moonshot lab. Naturally, their earliest and biggest project was self-driving cars, which later spun off into Waymo.
From their secretive building, separate from the main Googleplex and unknown to most Googlers at first, Thrun and his teammates continued to work on all kinds of projects, but self-driving cars remained a central focus. It took a full team of 12 engineers roughly 15 months, but they eventually built a car that could navigate a 1,000 mile route in California that Larry Page had personally drawn up. Waymo as it is now known is still going strong. Meanwhile, Thrun has since left his role at Google as of 2014, choosing to refocus his personal efforts on Udacity, the learning company that he founded with a vision in mind of upending the traditional college structure. He’s also continuing to work on side projects, such as using AI to research cancer treatment.