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.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.