Why Did Google's Lead Executive Behind Self-Driving Cars Depart?

By Markets Fool.com

Chris Urmson recently announced that he was leaving Alphabet(NASDAQ: GOOGL)(NASDAQ: GOOG)and its self-driving car project behind.

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In this clip from Industry Focus: Tech, Motley Fool analysts Dylan Lewis and Daniel Sparks look at what Urmson himself had to say about his departure (and where you can find his statement), and speculate on what may have led him to say goodbye to the project.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This podcast was recorded on Aug. 12, 2016.

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Dylan Lewis: In a post on Medium,Chris Urmson, who is the director of Google's self-driving car project, announced that he was leaving the project and the company. In that post he said, "After leading our cars through the human equivalent of a 150 years of driving and helping our project make the leap from pure research to developing a product that we hope someday anyone can be able to use, I'm ready for a fresh challenge." He went on to say, "If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and become something more, I will consider myself twice lucky." If you're interested in reading the whole post, the title is, "The view from the front seat of the Google self driving car, a new chapter," that's over on Medium.

This was pretty surprising to me. This is someone that was involved in the self-driving car project pretty much from day 1 at Google. His prior research was in autonomous driving. He was in the early DARPA competitions for these, let's try to get something out there self-driving car projects that eventually materialized into what Google's working on now. That has kind of been his life for the last decade. He's basically running a team that he's been working with for a very long time there. I was shocked by this news.

Daniel Sparks: Yeah. You have to wonder if it has something to do with the balance that Google takes on with its self driving cars, between operating as, "Okay, this is the technology and we're going to stick with developing a technology and outsourcing it to other businesses," or if they're thinking more toward the line, maybe not talking about it publicly, but doing something internally as a business with this technology. Maybe this has something to do with balancing between those lines, whether they're going to outsource the technology or do something internally. They recently transitioned to Alphabet, so yeah, it makes you wonder why he's leaving and what could have caused that.

Lewis: Yeah, and I think one of the interesting things here is as much as I've been paying attention at least, pretty much everything I've heard about Google's self-driving car project has come from Urmson himself. He's been the one providing updates, he's been the one offering up the vision on what's going on there. I was at South by Southwest earlier this year and saw him speak, he was one of the keynotes. He talked about this idea of, "We want to create the tech that powers this and allows for these types of systems to be mainstream. We're not interested in manufacturing cars ourselves, we're going to partner up with some of the legacy auto manufacturers to make that happen."

That has been the company line for quite some time now. You see, last year, the company hired John Krafcik, who is former president and CEO of Hyundai America, and they brought on to be the chief of the car project, so more of a business role, with Urmson leading the tech side of things. I think part of the plan there was to spin out this effort that they're working on in self-driving cars into some sort of stand-alone business, whether it's auto manufacturing, whether it's providing this tech, maybe licensing it out to the auto manufacturers. You wonder if that move might have caused some ripples within the development of the project, and might have caused Urmson to want to go elsewhere.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Sparks has no position in any stocks mentioned. Dylan Lewis owns shares of Alphabet (A shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.