Chris Urmson Leaves Google Car Project

It's the most prominent departure yet in the self-driving industry's game of musical chairs

1 min read
Urmson, departing head of Google Car project
Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen/AP Photo

Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car project, has announced his departure without saying what he'll do next. 

If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky,” he said in a final statement.

His wording implied that he hadn’t yet found one. But he’ll have no trouble getting a job, either with former Google colleagues who have founded self-driving companies or with one of the many automakers and suppliers that are cobbling together teams of roboticists. For example, Urmson might find a berth at Ottomotto, the company founded early this year by his former colleague, Anthony Levandowski

The cherry-picking of talent is apparent everywhere. At a recent shindig in San Francisco, Jan Becker represented Faraday Future, the new Chinese EV company; in a previous running of the same shindig he’d been the spokesman for Bosch. In June, Automotive Newsreported that Nissan was seeking 300 people for its own smart-car projects.

Apple has been raiding Google, Tesla and others for experts in electric drive and autonomous drive alike—even though Apple hasn’t even officially acknowledged that it’s interested in cars at all. And a few years earlier, Uber scooped up a huge chunk of the robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University by doubling salaries and offering signing bonuses in the six figures, according to the Wall Street Journal.

With knowhow walking out the door on a regular basis, any self-driving tech company with a great idea has little choice but to put its faith in the patent system. Trade secrets won’t stay secret for long.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

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A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

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EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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