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Tech's talent war forces self-driving car companies to get creative

Software designers can work almost anywhere, but writing code for a self-driving car tends to be a hands-on exercise — engineers need to directly experience how a vehicle performs and hone software as needed.

The big picture: Companies that design autonomous vehicles are maturing and beginning to rethink that convention. There's a war for talent across all tech industries, requiring AV companies to get creative to attract the top experts.

What's happening: In Silicon Valley, which is the heart of the self-driving industry, AV startups are competing with gold-plated compensation packages from deep-pocketed tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Google.

  • Plus, many people can't afford to live in Silicon Valley or won't move there.
  • One example is at Cruise, GM's San Francisco-based self-driving subsidiary, where 10 of the 42 senior engineers working for VP Tim Piastrelli's security team are working remotely from places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Voyage was an early pioneer in hiring remote engineers to work on self-driving technology. The Palo Alto-based startup, which raised $31 million this week, is piloting automated ride-hailing shuttles in a Florida retirement community and began experimenting with the arrangement about a year ago.

  • Early on, engineers really did have to be physically close to the car in Palo Alto, Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron tells Axios.
  • As the company matured and expanded testing, hands-on engineering instead became a "pain point," he says, so the company built tools that would let engineers work from anywhere.
  • Voyage now has veterans from Apple, SpaceX and Twitter working on critical AV projects in places like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Boise.

How it works: Reliable simulation, along with powerful cloud computing and other tools to manage the massive amounts of raw data collected daily from self-driving test vehicles, make it possible, Cameron explains in a blog post.

  • Vehicle data can be quickly downloaded by an engineer who can iterate rapidly and test those changes in simulated environments.
  • When something can't be validated virtually, it can still be tested by human operators in the vehicle.

Yes, but: Hands-on vehicle experience remains critical to most hiring managers at AV companies, says Jessica Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Mobility Institute.

What's next: There's "a very obvious ceiling" to remote hiring in the AV industry as self-driving cars move out of the design phase and begin to proliferate on roadways, Brookings Institution fellow Adie Tomer tells Axios.

  • At that point, the workforce will shift to managing AV fleets, a decidedly hands-on occupation where it will be critical for redundant teams to work side-by-side.

Go deeper: Imported self-driving shuttles have an edge over their U.S. rivals