Just a few short years ago, telling a random person on the street that you want a self-driving car would probably result in them looking at you like you're insane and telling you that such things are purely science fiction. Unless, of course, that person was Chris Urmson, former CTO of Google's self-driving car project that recently decided to end his tenure with Google to seek a "fresh challenge". Another person that might have told you a few years ago that you'd likely get your wish within your lifetime is Jiajun Zhu, a programmer and one of the founding fathers of Google's self-driving car project. He's also decided to leave, taking his talents to a startup company instead. A third person who may have given a meaningful response back then is Dave Ferguson, a machine learning whiz who is rumored to also be taking his leave soon. It seems as though a mass exodus of sorts is taking place at Google's self-driving car unit, and it's mostly the high-level creatives that are getting out of dodge.
While some may say that a job at Google is a dream come true and the company could never leave a talented person bored, one must think about the kind of people Google not only attracts, but accepts nothing less than. These are people who are not only driven to make the world a better place, but to constantly push themselves in new ways and soar to new heights. If the special talent that they used to build a project from the ground up has already been used to its full potential, they're not going to want to stick around. Urmson's specialty is robotics, and the self-driving cars' programming and mechanics are all solid. Ferguson is into machine learning, Google's newest obsession, and the self-driving cars already have a far-beyond-adequate grasp of what they should be on the lookout for and what kind of data they should be recording and sharing. Finally, Zhu, one of the first people to get the project off the ground, is a programmer. While the project will likely always need programmers to help the machines interpret and implement new data, the need for a star programmer who can craft the whole system from scratch is most likely over. For all intents and purposes, these three were destined to simply sit on their laurels and teach new blood their talents, which just didn't do it for them. There is, of course, another possible reason.
Google's self-driving car project has finally entered its next phase. That is, they're looking for ways to commercialize it. The unit is currently valued around $10 billion, and almost all of that is investor money and assets. Thus far, the self-driving car project has only announced a formal partnership with Ford. While they are one of the biggest car manufacturers in the US, they are still just one manufacturer, and there is competition in the self-driving space coming from just about everywhere, from Apple to Detroit and even China. Thus, they brought in John Krafcik, former head honcho of Hyundai. This is a man who knows a thing or two about making a company profitable; he formerly operated one of the biggest auto firms in the entire world. It's quite likely that, on top of their usefulness having worn thin, the three exiting greats were driven away by the shift from a creative and entrepreneurial spirit of experimentation and growth to a responsibility to investors. Reportedly, Urmson even hashed it out with Google co-founder Larry Page over the issue. While losing top talent is a bad thing for Google, this is a decidedly good thing for the self-driving car project. It has long languished in questionable commercial viability, and the new unit under Krafcik, soon to be its own company under Alphabet, will aim to change all of that and get the project up to snuff to contract out to partners and sell to consumers. In other words, all of these creative, Google-y people leaving means that you're one step closer to snoozing behind the nonexistent wheel of an autonomous automobile while it carries you quickly, safely, and privately to your destination, even if you're currently unable to drive for any reason.