Google Hires CEO for Self-Driving Car Business

Google has hired an auto industry engineer who worked at Hyundai and Ford as its new robot car CEO

2 min read
Google Hires CEO for Self-Driving Car Business
Photo: Richard Drew/AP Photo

Google has chosen a new driver to take the wheel of its self-driving car development efforts. To guide its robot car business, the tech giant has turned to a mechanical engineer with a wealth of business experience earned at companies such as Hyundai, Ford, GM, and Toyota during the auto industry’s most turbulent and transformative times.

The new CEO of Google’s self-driving car business is John Krafcik, president of online car-shopping service TrueCar Inc. Google still doesn’t plan to manufacture its own driverless cars, and wants to find partners to develop the technology, according to the Wall Street Journal. But Krafcik’s auto industry experience may prove useful for the Silicon Valley giant to get its fledgling robot car business beyond testing the technology on public roads. Both Krafcik and Google confirmed in public statements that he would take on his new position in September.

“This is a great opportunity to help Google develop the enormous potential of self-driving cars,” Krafcik said on his Twitter account. “Self-driving cars could save thousand of lives, give people greater mobility and free us from things we find frustrating about driving today.”

The incoming CEO made his name early on in his career when, in a 1988 research paper for MIT’s Sloan Management Review, he coined the term “lean production” to explain why Japanese automakers had become more productive than their Western rivals. Krafcik was also the first American engineer hired by the GM and Toyota joint-venture partnership NUMMI, an auto manufacturing plant in Fremont, Calif., that was emblematic of GM’s attempt to learn from Toyota’s lean production mindset. (The plant was eventually shut down and taken over by Tesla Motors in 2010.)

Krafcik went on to become a product-development leader at the Ford Motor Company from 1990 to 2004. During his time at Ford, he served as chief engineer for Ford’s Expedition and Navigator SUVs, and helped develop new iterations of the Ford F-150 pickup truck.

More recently, Krafcik spent a decade at Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. and rose to become president and CEO of Hyundai’s U.S. business. He helped Hyundai boost its U.S. market share by more than 50 percent. One of his successes included overseeing development of the company’s “Assurance Program” that allowed Americans to return cars if they lost their jobs within a year of the original purchase. That move allowed Hyundai to win market share in the midst of the turmoil following the 2008 recession.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that, by hiring Krafcik, “Google is sending a message that it is serious about the business side of autonomous vehicles and keen to work closely with the auto industry to commercialize the technology.” The paper also points out that progress has thus far been slow for Google’s autonomous vehicle business development.

Whatever Krafcik and Google decide to do, they’ll be facing plenty of competition. Uber has been pushing to test completely driverless cars in public as a stepping stone toward developing a robot taxi service. The Chinese search giant Baidu announced that it might roll out a self-driving car as early as this year. Even Google’s Silicon Valley rival Apple has been working on self-driving cars under an umbrella of secrecy. A swarm of big automakers have also been racing to develop robot cars; Toyota recently unveiled a new push toward AI and robotics development headed by Gill Pratt, a former robotics program manager for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

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