The hiring of a veteran auto executive to oversee Google Inc.’s autonomous car project could signal an acceleration of its efforts to bring self-driving cars to U.S. roads by 2020.
TrueCar president John Krafcik has been hired as CEO of the Google Self-Driving Car Project, the company said Monday. Krafcik is a former Hyundai Motor America president and CEO, and was a long-time executive at Ford Motor Co. Alan Mulally, Ford’s former CEO, joined Google’s board of directors last year.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, said the hiring suggests a faster time frame for the self-driving car project.
“Everyone knows Google has been working on its own automotive line for the last several years, but hiring John Krafcik suggests the tech company is getting close to going public with its plans,” Brauer said.
“Beyond his vast engineering and management experience, John Krafcik is one of the most engaging and charismatic leaders in the industry.
“If Google is looking for a spokesperson to articulate its goals for personal transportation they couldn’t have picked a better ambassador.”
Reached Monday, Krafcik declined to comment before he starts his job later this month.
“This is a great opportunity to help Google develop the enormous potential of self-driving cars,” Krafcik said in a statement. “This technology can save thousands of lives, give millions of people greater mobility, and free us from a lot of the things we find frustrating about driving today. I can’t wait to get started.”
The hiring of Krafcik hiring is the latest sign of increasing interest in self-driving cars from Silicon Valley. Apple Inc. also is working on research that could lead to fully autonomous vehicles. Google previously hired a former deputy administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Ron Medford, in 2012 as part of its project.
Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne reiterated Monday that the search engine giant, which has logged more than 1.1 million autonomous miles, has no plans to become an automaker, but seeks to partner with others to bring the technology to market.
The company repeatedly has said it thinks the technology will be ready by 2020, but has not committed to commercializing it by then. It’s not clear if vehicles would be offered for sale to consumers — or possibly as taxis.
Morgan Stanley auto analyst Adam Jonas believes traditional automakers have reason to be worried. He is confident Apple or Google will be able to produce an autonomous car by 2020. He thinks such a car could first be used as taxis in urban areas, and ultimately spur widespread adoption. He believes some cities will even ban driving by humans by 2030.
“It accelerates everybody,” Jonas told The Detroit News this year. “If Google or Apple get a small fleet of driverless taxis on San Francisco roads, that could change forever transportation.”
Google, which is in the process of renaming itself Alphabet Inc., said it could eventually spin off its self-driving car project as a separate business unit. But for now, it will remain part of its X lab.
Early this year, analysts and media reports said Apple had joined the autonomous vehicle race. Tesla Motors Inc. said last year it predicts self-driving cars by 2020 and is rolling out autonomous features on its electric cars.
The push by Silicon Valley to build fully autonomous vehicles is of intense concern to major automakers, who are watching the effort closely and working on their own self-driving cars. Some industry watcher believe Silicon Valley could disrupt global automakers in the way Detroit disrupted the horses that moved much of the country until the early part of the 20th century.
German, Japanese and U.S. automakers are spending significant time and effort working on the effort. Features like lane-departure warnings, adaptive cruise-control that speeds or slows cars to maintain their pace in traffic are all steps on the way to autonomous driving; they are available from most carmakers already. They use video cameras, radar sensors, laser rangefinders and detailed maps to monitor road and driving conditions.
On Friday, 10 major automakers agreed in principle to add to all future vehicles electronic systems that automatically brake vehicles to prevent front-end collisions.
Google began testing Michigan-built prototype driverless cars on city streets in California in July. It has now built about 30 of them.
The company said that even though the prototypes are meant to be fully autonomous — and not have steering wheels or pedals — the prototypes include temporary steering wheels and pedals. It says it is logging about 10,000 miles a week in the cars.
Ford CEO Mark Fields said this year that Google and Apple are forcing automakers to work harder.
“It’s going to keep us all on our toes from an innovation standpoint,” he said. “We are absolutely looking at this as an opportunity and not just as a threat.”