Google Self-Driving Car : CTO Quits As Unit Inches Toward Commercialization
Google’s push to perfect cars that drive themselves spurred the auto industry to fund their own efforts in that space. Now Chris Urmson, a key part of that effort for seven years, is leaving as the Silicon Valley giant moves closer to commercialising the technology.
“After leading our cars through the human equivalent of 150 years of driving and helping our project make the leap from pure research to developing a product that we hope someday anyone will be able to use, I am ready for a fresh challenge,” Urmson, chief technology officer for Google Self-Driving Cars, said in a post on Medium.com. “I feel lucky to have played a role in building this team from a handful of people into the world-class team it is today, readying self-driving cars that will soon take you from A to B at the push of a button.”
Urmson didn’t elaborate on what he’ll do next, and neither did Google.
“Chris has been a vital force for the project, helping the team move from a research phase to a point where this life-saving technology will soon become a reality,” the company said in a statement. “He departs with our warmest wishes.”
The news comes as activity and investment in the autonomous vehicle space hits a fever pitch and new players arrive almost weekly. Robotic vehicles fully capable of taking over driving duties from humans aren’t yet a complete reality, but automakers, tech companies and suppliers including Tesla Motors, General Motors, Uber, Ford Motor, Audi, Daimler, Toyota Motor, Nissan Motor, Nvidia, Intel, MobilEye and many others are preparing for their arrival.
Mountain View, California-based Google hasn’t detailed its path to commercialising self-driving cars, though it has taken steps to evolve the well-funded R&D initiative into a revenue-generating business.
In September 2015 it hired career auto executive John Krafcik, a long-time Ford engineer and former head of Hyundai Motor’s U.S. unit, as chief executive officer for Google Self-Driving Cars. Since his arrival, Google has struck a deal to source Pacifica minivans from FCA that will be the next stage of test vehicles in its demonstration fleet and opened an R&D centre in Michigan.
“Chris is an incredible colleague & leader,” Krafcik said in a Twitter post. ”Thank you for your passion & humility. Good luck on your new adventures!”
Two other high-profile alums of Google’s vehicle efforts left the company last year to create their own autonomous driving business. Lior Ron, former product lead for Google Maps, and Anthony Levandowski, previously technical lead for Google’s self-driving car division, in January created Otto, a San Francisco startup that is developing technology to allows long-haul commercial trucks to drive themselves, seeing that application as a faster entry point to the robotic vehicle era than cars.
Google’s efforts gained steam when in 2009 it hired Urmson and other Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University robotics and engineering stars who’d been members of teams that won Defense Department-sponsored DARPA challenge races for autonomous vehicles in 2005 and 2007.
And as research labs perfect advanced sensors, cameras, radar and LIDAR components to help vehicles see and detect what’s around them and the advanced software needed to power decision-making and reaction to road conditions independent of a human drivers, Google and its competitors await government regulations clarifying when and how the technology can be introduced.