The most recent CTO of Google’s self-driving car project is a robotics expert who’s been a part of the project for seven and a half years or so. Chris Urmson, a top roboticist and somebody who’s been involved with autonomous driving for many years, recently put up a post on Medium at the end of last week to announce the end of his time with Google. Urmson’s tenure comes to an end as the self-driving car unit begins to not only come into its own, but to commercialize. New leadership was recently put in place to help guide the project to commercial viability in the form of former Hyundai exec John Krafcik. Urmson’s post on Medium did not say exactly why he’s moving on, but allegations point to issues with leadership, going all the way up to a disagreement with Google co-founder Larry Page over the new genesis of the self-driving car project as its own company under Alphabet. His departure comes after that of Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google’s X Laboratory, who made his exit in 2013. While this could by no means be called a mass exodus, two people for whom self-driving cars were a passion project took off. What does this mean for the future of the project, and what sort of shift is happening that managed to drive them to look elsewhere?
Long before shacking up with Google, Urmson was a member of a research team at Carnegie Mellon. Thrun, meanwhile, was a member of a similar team at Stanford. Both teams wound up in a battle of self-driving car engineers, the 2005 Darpa Grand Challenge. Thrun’s team came out on top that year, while Urmson’s team claimed victory in 2007’s Darpa Urban Challenge. Clearly, these were two people who had a passion for autonomous driving mechanisms, who would likely love a career developing such a thing. Getting such a career at a place consistently topping “Best Places To Work” lists is just a bonus. While Thrun’s departure in 2013 to teach at Stanford is reasonable, Urmson taking off is a slightly less outside-motivated departure; his post on Medium is ambling in nature, seeming to show that he wanted out of his role at Google more than he wanted into anything else.
This seems to indicate that the project is starting to shift away from the kind of experimental passion project that can afford to have engineers and staff doing things via trial and error, and toward more of a stiff regimen, with shareholders nipping at Google’s heels and asking where the money will be coming from. Krafcik leading the project is a sign of this; while this is a man with a passion for the automotive industry and innovation therein, Krafcik is also a businessman. At Hyundai, he was the president and CEO. Krafcik went from lording over one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world to directing Google’s self-driving car project as the CEO. This will obviously lead to a palpable shift toward commercialism, which is in line with Google’s goals for the project, but unfortunately tends not to sit well with the more creative types, like Urmson.
In the end, the evolution of Google’s self-driving car project from a dream, to a reality, and then to a viable commercial product is all but inevitable. It would have happened with or without shareholders’ pressures, with or without Krafcik, and with or without splitting the unit off from Alphabet. In a capitalist economy, keeping such a project going without getting money out of it somehow is simply unsustainable, even for a company of Google’s size. It is unfortunate that the shift is seemingly driving away great talent, but it’s a necessary evil for the project to eventually hit its endgame.