A number of Google employees working on the company’s autonomous car project ended up leaving, as the payments grew so huge they felt more confident in taking risks on other jobs. And they called it “fuck you money,” as in, it enabled anybody cashing those checks to say that to their bosses and strike out on their own.
Here’s how it happened: When the project was unveiled in 2010, Google devised a unique compensation system that tied the project’s value to employee payments. As a firm previously funded by advertising, Google needed a new way to incentivize employees.
But the payouts grew so big, reported Bloomberg, that the engineers on the project worried less about job security and took jobs elsewhere, lured by starting their own firm. Google was upping its pay when the team achieved new goals, and talent started to leave even though the project hadn’t actually produced a publicly available autonomous car.
Eventually, the plan was ditched. The project was spun off into a separate company called Waymo in December, which sits under the larger Alphabet corporate umbrella. Still, the damage is done: Ford is spending $1 billion on Argo A.I., a startup founded by a former executive on the project, while other ex-Google employees founded Otto, a self-driving car startup that was bought by Uber in August.
It’s not the only self-driving car company struggling with employee management. Tesla has found itself suing an ex-employee that founded a company called Aurora Innovation. Sterling Anderson, a former program manager, worked on the Autopilot program that Tesla is hoping to develop into a fully autonomous system. Tesla claims that Anderson did not properly return sensitive data and that Aurora intends to leapfrog Tesla in the self-driving space.
Even company partners have shown themselves to be problematic, as engineers everywhere scramble to crack the self-driving car market before anyone else. Mobileye used to partner with Tesla, providing chips that powered the semi-autonomous Autopilot system, but last summer the pair parted ways. While Tesla aims to debut full autonomy this year, Mobileye showed at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show last month that it’s cracked an autonomous car system.
Whether it’s Google, Tesla, Mobileye, or someone else that reaches the self-driving holy grail first, whoever makes it first will get a big prize, just as long as the company that gets there can actually hold onto its staff.