SAN FRANCISCO – Google appears to be accelerating its six-year-old autonomous car project, announcing Sunday that it has named auto-world veteran John Krafcik as the project’s first CEO.
Krafcik, who before his recent post as president of consumer-focused pricing site TrueCar was CEO of Hyundai’s U.S. operations, will begin working at the Mountain View company later this month. “This technology can save thousands of lives, give millions of people greater mobility, and free us from a lot of the things we find frustrating about driving today,” Krafcik said in a statement. “I can’t wait to get started.”
Chris Urmson, the longstanding leader of Google’s autonomous car program, will remain in charge as its technical chief. Urmson will report to Krafcik, whose background includes engineering roles at Ford between 1990 and 2004. He started in the auto industry in 1984, shortly after getting a mechanical engineering degree at Stanford University, when he began working at a former joint-venture plant owned by Toyota and General Motors.
With his deep auto world contacts, Krafcik would appear to be a shrewd choice for Google to lead its program given that project leaders have on a number of occasions indicated that they would seek an existing company with deep expertise in auto manufacturing to pair with in building any eventual fleet of self-driving cars.
Google’s autonomous vehicle project, which currently has cars testing on public roads in both Mountain View and Austin, Texas, is considered among the most developed among an increasingly crowded field that now includes both automakers as well as new tech entrants such as Uber, the ride-hailing service, and Apple, which though officially mum on the topic has been hiring engineers from the likes of electric-car maker Tesla.
From its inception, Google’s automotive effort has stayed under a broad experimental umbrella. It is part of the company’s Google X division, the so-called “moon shot” branch of the search company. Google recently announced that it would be creating a new parent company called Alphabet, and that Google X ventures would remain Alphabet companies while other divisions, such as device maker Nest, would be granted a new autonomy.
However, in an email Google spokesperson Kara Berman said that while the self-driving car project currently remains an X project, it would be “a good candidate to become (a stand-alone division) at some point in the future.”
To date, Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs (loaded with radar and laser-based radar devices) as well as its new two-person prototypes, have driven more than 1 million miles in an effort to load real-life traffic situations into the cars’ computer brains. So far, the vehicles have been in 16 accidents, many of them rear-bumper damaging collisions and in every case the fault of human drivers who either weren’t paying attention or who didn’t react as quickly to traffic as the sensor-packed Google car.
As for a timetable when the public might begin using Google’s autonomous vehicles, former project head Urmson has long stated somewhat jokingly that the project’s mission was to make sure his 11-year-old son never had to get a driver’s license, which would be roughly four years from now.