“I have a really deep belief that we create technologies to empower ourselves. We’ve invented a lot of technology that just makes us all faster and better and I’m generally a big fan of this,” Thrun says. “I just want to make sure that this technology stays subservient to people. People are the number one entity there is on this planet.” ~Sebastian Thrun
"Let's see if I can get us killed," Sebastian Thrun advises me in a Germanic baritone as we shoot south onto the 101 in his silver Nissan Leaf.
Thrun, who pioneered the self-driving car, cuts across two lanes of traffic, then jerks into a third, threading the car into a sliver of space between an eighteen-wheeler and a sedan. Thrun seems determined to halve the normally eleven minute commute from the Palo Alto headquarters of Udacity, the online university he oversees, to Google X, the secretive Google research lab he co-founded and leads.
He's also keen to demonstrate the urgency of replacing human drivers with the autonomous automobiles he's engineered.
"Would a self-driving car let us do this?" I ask, as mounting G-forces press me back into my seat.
"No," Thrun answers. "A self-driving car would be much more careful."
Thrun, 45, is tall, tanned and toned from weekends biking and skiing at his Lake Tahoe home. More surfer than scientist, he smiles frequently and radiates serenity—until he slams on his brakes at the sight of a cop idling in a speed trap at the side of the highway. Something heavy thumps against the seat behind us and when Thrun opens the trunk moments later, he discovers that three sheets of glass he’s been shuttling around have shattered.
Once we reach Google X, he regains his stride, leaving me trotting by his side as he racewalks to his office. Motion is a constant in his life. A pair of black roller skates sit by his desk. Twelve years ago, he borrowed his wife’s sneakers to run the Pittsburg marathon, without bothering to train for the race. He got his son on skis before most other kids his age got out of diapers.
When Thrun finds something he wants to do or, better yet, something that is “broken,” it drives him “nuts” and, he says, he becomes “obsessed” with fixing it.
Over the last 17 years, Thrun has been the author of, or a pivotal force behind, a list of solutions to a entire roster of “broken” things, making him a folk hero of sorts among Silicon Valley innovators, though hardly a household name elsewhere. While he’s in a hurry in almost every other aspect of his life, he embraces a slow-cooking approach to invention and product-building that sets him apart from many of the create-it-fund-it-and-flip-it whiz kids and veterans who populate the Valley.