shutterstock_777484921.jpg

If you believe the hype coming out of the tech industry, autonomous driving is the future of how we’ll get around. And there’s perhaps no bigger hype-driver than Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who breezily predicted earlier this year that vehicles will become almost fully autonomous by mid-2020 or so.

Of course, Musk has predicted that degree of autonomy for years—at one point, he also said that “full self-driving” features would arrive in Tesla vehicles by 2019. Nonetheless, Musk is just one of the many technologists working towards our self-driving future; his company is locked in fierce competition with Waymo, a Google subsidiary that has been piloting self-driving taxicabs on the mean streets of suburban Phoenix, as well as Uber (which has experienced some autonomous-driving setbacks) and the “traditional” auto industry.

One of those auto-industry stalwarts, General Motors, has made no secret of its interest in autonomous vehicles. Its self-driving division, known as Cruise, has collected roughly $1.15 billion in investments from a variety of outside funders, which means it’s at least somewhat serious about producing a car that can drive itself within the next few years. (Its workers, meanwhile, are very serious about getting additional concessions from management, because 50,000 of them are currently on strike.)

But as any technologist will tell you, winning a race like this all comes down to talent—and talent wants to get paid. With that in mind, how much do software engineers at General Motors make? And how does that compare to salaries at Tesla?

Fortunately, we have levels.fyi, which provides tons of crowdsourced salary information, to give us at least some idea of how these companies match up. Let’s start with Tesla; the compensation levels listed below represent a mix of base salary, stock, and bonuses:

Now let’s take a look at General Motors:

What can we conclude from this data? As we’ve mentioned before, Tesla pays its software engineers a solid salary, although we hear that the stress placed upon them is often enormous, complete with grinding schedules and multiple reports of burnout.  

But General Motors seems to pay its software engineers appreciably less, at least according to the crowdsourced breakdown available on levels.fyi. Granted, not all software engineers at GM are involved in autonomous driving (and those who do might be earning bigger salaries than average), but if this is representative of how much the company is willing to pay for engineering talent as a whole, then it’s going to struggle to face down technology companies that are muscling into the automotive space.

Just for comparison’s sake, Facebook pays its newbies an average base salary of $111,250, a bonus of $67,000, and stock options worth $116,875. Entry-level Amazon recruits, meanwhile, earn an average salary of $108,000, combined with a bonus of $51,142 and stock options of $70,000. Google shells out an average of $115,000 for entry-level engineers, combined with a $44,000 signing bonus, stock options worth $139,000, and an annual bonus of $22,000. That represents quite a hurdle for non-tech companies such as General Motors if they want to compete for the same pool of talent.

Indeed, there are indications that some companies are willing to pay many millions for those technologists with an ideal mix of experience and skills in building autonomous-driving platforms. Google, for example, paid some members of its autonomous-driving team so much that they actually quit, loaded up with enough cash to retire or start their own companies. Any company that wants to compete in this arena, in other words, may have to pay an absurd amount of money to those with the right knowledge to get the job done.