Google has hired car industry veteran John Krafcik, Hyundai’s former chief executive in America, to run its self-driving car programme.
Krafcik, 53, is credited with turning around Hyundai’s US operations, leading the company to huge sales increases after the Global Financial Crisis.
Early in his career as a mechanical engineer he worked at a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors where he became an advocate of lean manufacturing.
Krafcik’s hiring shows Google is serious about turning autonomous cars into a sustainable business. The tech giant has promised to have a self-driving car in the public’s hands by 2020.
Mercedes, General Motors and Toyota are working to gradually automate functions in their cars until they become fully capable of driving themselves, possibly by 2025.
Google started developing self-driving vehicles in 2010. The company this week says it’s made more progress on its autonomous car technology than it ever thought possible.
“We still have a lot to learn about how people perceive our vehicles and how they’ll want to fit this technology into their lives,” the company says.
There are legal and ethical issues to work through before driverless cars go mainstream.
Google’s cars also require detailed mapping, which has only been done in limited areas.
Convincing drivers that driverless technology is safe is another hurdle the company must overcome.
The California company has been testing several dozen self-driving cars near its Silicon Valley headquarters, and more recently in Austin, Texas. To learn the tricks of driving, its cars have driven more than 1.6 million kilometres on highways or city streets.
Some experts predict that the traditional car companies will continue to make the cars consumers buy and park in their driveways, relying on their decades-long history of research and development and a deep understanding of drivers’ needs and habits. When the tech companies roll out driverless cars, they likely will be self-driving taxis for urban areas.
Krafcik is a Stanford-trained mechanical engineer who also has a business degree.
Hiring Krafcik sets the stage for Google to create a separate autonomous car company under its new holding company, Alphabet. The company says the project isn’t ready to become a separate company yet, “though it’s certainly a good candidate to become one at some point in the future”.