Veteran Car Guy to Steer Google’s Driverless Cars to Market

Google on Sunday named auto industry veteran John Krafcik to head up its autonomous vehicle division. Krafcik, former CEO of Hyundai’s U.S. operations, will be the first CEO of Google’s 6-year-old self-driving car project.

“This is a great opportunity to help Google develop the enormous potential of self-driving cars,” said Krafcik, who most recently ran the auto shopper site TrueCar.

“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,” he added. “I can’t wait to get started.”

His new job will begin later this month.

Krafcik spent 10 years in leadership positions at Hyundai Motor America, including five years as its president and CEO. During that time, he oversaw the strategic direction and management of the company’s operations in North America. Previously, he held several product development leadership positions at Ford. Krafcik, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University, began his career in the auto industry in 1984.

He also received an M.S. in management from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. During his time there, he wrote the book, Triumph of the Lean Production System, and a chapter, “Running the Factory,” for The Machine That Changed the World.

Connecting the Dots

Google’s fleet of autonomous vehicles already has logged more than 1 million miles under the leadership of Chris Urmson, who will continue as the technical chief for this project. Urmson will report to Krafcik.

“The appointment of Krafcik suggests Google is very serious about autonomous vehicles, but it doesn’t mean they ever intend to actually make cars,” said Egil Juliussen, principal analyst atIHS Automotive Technology.

“Google is in this space because they want to license the software and even their high-definition mapping technology,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “To do this, they need a good inside connection in the industry, and Krafcik has great experience as well as those established relationships.”

Krafcik is also someone with the commercial acumen to lead and support the strong technical team that Google has carefully assembled, noted Praveen Chandrasekar, automotive and transportation research manager atFrost & Sullivan.

“The idea as mentioned by Google is not to become a car manufacturer but use someone like Krafcik and his automotive experience to seek partnerships to bring this technology to market,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “For Google, this is an additional asset who can help them take this technology to market and make this a profitable business and not just a pet science experiment.”

The Road Ahead

Over the past several years, Google has devoted much attention to its efforts to develop autonomous vehicle technology. However, it’s still well outside the company’s core businesses.

The self-driving project is very much about developing the technology and software and having someone else invest the time, money and resources to get to the finish line. Krafcik could be instrumental in helping guide the partnerships necessary to make this happen.

“The company is serious about level 4 fully autonomous driving and using the technology they have developed — sensors and algorithms — through partners and bring it to market,” said Chandrasekar.

Level 4 is the top level of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s classification system for autonomous vehicles, requiring no driver assistance to control the vehicle.

“With the level of robustness and actual testing they have already done, they might be closer to the goal of bringing this to market by early 2020s, and for that they need someone like Krafcik to help them with the partners,” Chandrasekar added.

“Clearly, since Google has rejected making cars, unlike Apple or Tesla, their route to market relies on winning the trust of existing OEMs, and that is what his job will be,” he said.

Influential but Not Critical

However, since the project is still on the fringes of Google’s core business, it won’t make or break the company.

“It is a very important project,” said IHS’s Juliussen. “Anything under the Google X umbrella is something they know may or may not pan [out]. If they fail, this isn’t the end of the world for Google, but this could potentially change the auto industry as well as the billions of people around the world who have no driver’s licenses. It would be an exciting project to head up.”

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who has covered consumer electronics, technology, electronic entertainment and fitness-related trends for more than a decade. His work has appeared in more than three dozen publications, and he is the co-author of Careers in the Computer Game Industry (Career in the New Economy series), a career guide aimed at high school students from Rosen Publishing. You can connect with Peter on Google+.

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