Thrun's life changed forever in 2004 at the DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest to develop a car that could drive itself 142 miles from Barstow, Calif., to the Nevada border. The winning team went only seven miles. The disappointment inspired Thrun, 43, who specializes in machine learning and robotics. He dropped everything and took a group of students to the Mojave Desert to tackle the problem. The next year his team won, and the German-born Thrun has focused on robotic cars -- he's especially interested in car sharing and more efficient highway driving -- ever since. He's also a Google Distinguished Engineer and worked on Google Street View, which provides photos for various streets and addresses. --B.K.
NEXT: Academic runner-up: Jonathan Zittrain
Last updated July 09 2010: 1:19 PM ET