Google X Founder Thrun Offers ‘Nanodegrees’ to German Carmakers

The founder of X, Alphabet Inc.’s research and development facility, is bringing his online education company to Germany to help the likes of Volkswagen AG and BMW AG gear up for technological changes such as the self-driving car.

Udacity Inc., which offers so-called nanodegrees online and has developed courses with Facebook Inc. and Inc., is expanding to Germany because its banks, energy companies and carmakers are struggling to equip staff and find enough workers with the right skills as their industries are disrupted by technology, said founder and President Sebastian Thrun, who worked on Google’s self-driving car project.

“Among the company CEOs I talk to, there is a very crisp and clear understanding that their future depends on their own workforce’s ability to master contemporary technology -- things like artificial intelligence, big data, cyber security and mobile,” Thrun said in an interview in Berlin, where Udacity may hire additional workers in the near future. “We’re talking to the automotive industry specifically to build self-driving car nanodegrees so people can learn the latest technology.”

German carmakers are scrambling to adapt as urbanization and changing attitudes toward cars redefine how customers view transportation. That also means changing requirements for their workers. Volkswagen, which has pledged to introduce more electric cars and invest in self-driving and internet-connected vehicles, should introduce programs to retrain staff in positions that will become obsolete in the shift to the new vehicles, according to Bernd Osterloh, the company’s top worker representative.

“We expect to see a comprehensive qualification program as a key building block in the pact for the future,” Osterloh said Tuesday at a gathering of 20,000 employees in Wolfsburg. “This plan must ensure that employees -- from technical development and production through to sales and components -- can take the path into the digital and electric future.”

Udacity, which is backed by Germany’s Bertelsmann SE, is also speaking to German companies in telecommunications and banking about partnerships that could see companies helping create content, pledging to hire Udacity graduates, or using the company’s courses internally, Thrun said. Udacity hasn’t yet signed agreements with any of the carmakers.

“If we can teach Silicon Valley startup skills, we can make Germany a much more creative, impactful place in the world,” he said.