Sebastian Thrun lost his best friend in a car accident aged 18. This tragic moment inspired him to dedicate his life to saving the 1 million people a year who die on the road, by inventing a car that could drive itself – better than a human could – he told a TED audience in 2011.

And it was while he was an associate professor at Stanford that the world sat up and noticed him. Thrun led a team that created a self-driving car, winning the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, a 130-mile course across the Mojave Desert. It proved pivotal as Google founder Larry Page spotted Thrun at the event, disguising himself to avoid attention.

“Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,” Thrun said.

A later iteration of the car had cameras attached to its roof, so the team could review its progress each day, leading almost by accident to the development of Google Street View.

“We realized the video’s actually amazing. And we went to Google and said ‘we’d love to help you build Street View.’ And we kind of ended up – felt like an acquisition of a little start-up company, kind of Stanford transitioning into Google where me and four of my grad students then became Street View enthusiasts.”

“And we built up Street View and with a singular vision to photograph every street in the world.”

Street View became the first project within the secret Google X. “We had a separate building that no one knew about. At least for a year and a half, no one in Google had a clue we existed,” Thrun said.

Google’s Street View cars at a technology fair in
Hamburg, Germany in March 2010

Sean Gallup | Getty Images

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