Google Brings in Chief for Self-Driving Cars

Dow Jones Newswires

Google  is ready to turn its self-driving car technology into a business and has hired an auto-industry veteran to run it. Google said John Krafcik, president of online car-shopping service TrueCar, is joining as CEO of its car project in late September. Chris Urmson, the former head of the project, will lead technical development of the autonomous vehicles and software. Mr. Krafcik is a mechanical engineer with a business degree who made his early career with a data-driven approach focusing on lean manufacturing. He was at Ford Motor from 1990 to 2004, where he held various product-development leadership positions, including chief engineer for the Expedition and Navigator SUVs. He spent a decade at Hyundai Motor Co., including five years as president and CEO of the U.S. business. He led Hyundai to record sales and boosted the auto maker's U.S. market share. After the 2008 financial crisis, he oversaw the team that created an "Assurance Program" that let Americans return cars if they lost a job within a year after purchase, helping the company gain sales in a plunging market. His departure after Hyundai didn't renew his contract in late 2013 came as a shock to the automotive community because of his success. By hiring him, 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. "We're feeling good about our progress, so now we're investing in building out a team that can help us bring this technology to its full potential," a Google spokeswoman said. "John's combination of technical expertise and auto-industry experience will be particularly valuable as we collaborate with many different partners to achieve our goal." Google doesn't plan to manufacture its own cars and wants to partner with others to develop the technology, she added. Google has been trying to transform itself from an Internet search engine into a broader enterprise that applies its computing muscle and know-how to big industries such as transportation and health care. The self-driving car project, which started in 2009, was the first public example of the effort and its slow progress is emblematic of Google's challenges. In August, Google said it would re-organize into a new holding company called Alphabet to separate its main search-and-advertising business from newer ventures such as thermostat maker Nest and Internet service provider Fiber, which will be run more independently. Google X, the company's research lab, is an Alphabet company. The car project is part of X, but the arrival of Mr. Krafcik as CEO suggests it may soon be independent too. The Google spokeswoman said the project is a good candidate to become an Alphabet company. Google's self-driving prototypes are being tested on public roads in urban areas of California and more recently Austin, Texas. But there have been few signs so far that Google is close to making the vehicles in enough volume to create a money-making product or service. Google veteran Claire Hughes Johnson joined the car project in January 2014 to work on potential business models, but left nine months later in part because the project was still too far from becoming a viable business. In a 2014 speech, she suggested that Google cars would probably be used as an on-demand service, rather than purchased by individuals.

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