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Now Project Head, He Rethinks Business Chances of Google’s Self-Driving Cars

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John Krafcik, formerly of TrueCar, once was adamant the search-engine giant would not get too far into the autonomous-car business.

I appeared on the online TV show “Autoline After Hours” last year. During a rapid-fire question period, Todd Lassa of Automobile magazine asked (at the 1:05:10 mark) if Google someday might market its own self-driving cars.

No way, that would be diving off a cliff, I said. Of any such car-business ambitions by Google, I added, “Well, they have the money to lose.”

Another guest was as adamant about Google not going there. On whether the search-engine giant would seriously market an autonomous car, he said, “Absolutely not.”

That guest was John Krafcik. At the time, he was the relatively new president of TrueCar, a company that posts online pricing information for car shoppers and also sells Internet leads to dealers.

Now, Krafcik is leaving TrueCar, which has faced controversies and conflicts of late. He will become, get this, CEO of the so-called Google Self-Driving Car Project.

Presumably, that job was not in the works in June of 2014 when Krafcik on “Autoline” waved off Google’s chances as a startup auto company.

In a statement about his new position, he says, “This is a great opportunity to help Google develop the enormous potential of self-driving cars.

“This technology can save thousands of lives, give millions of people greater mobility and free us from a lot of things we find frustrating about driving today.”

Major automakers would agree. After all, they’ve dedicated brain trusts to their own ambitious autonomous-vehicle programs.

If Google gets deeper into what so far looks like a rich kid’s science project, it sure won’t corner the market. Get set to face hard-nosed auto pros such as General Motors and Mercedes-Benz. The latter’s production-vehicle S-Class is so technologically advanced, it’s a precursor to a self-driving car.    

Much speculation centers on what the autonomous world of autos will look like.

Will people completely cede driving to their cars? Will households need but one car that will serve as a constant shuttle, taking parents to work, kids to school and the dog to the vet? What will the dealership demo drive feel like? Can you drink and drive if you’re not actually driving?

Your guess is as good as anybody’s. Although some prognosticators offer vivid predictions, the future looks foggy yonder that way.

Google hiring Krafcik may indicate how serious it is about developing a self-driving car. Its adapted Toyotas and Lexuses (the experimental bubble-shaped micro-cars seen in photos come later) currently skirt around California roadways. They are manufactured by Roush, which also does specialty cars, notably a jazzed-up Ford Mustang, a driver’s car if ever there was one.

Krafcik early on worked as a Ford engineer. He left his biggest mark on the auto industry at the helm of Hyundai Motor America, guiding it through the harsh 2008-2009 recession with apropos programs for the times (“Lose your job, we’ll buy your car back”)  then on to notable U.S. growth for the South Korean automaker.

His TrueCar departure comes on the heels of founder Scott Painter saying he’ll step down as CEO amid dealer-initiated lawsuits and falling stock prices.

Krafcik went to Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA, which is close to Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters. So the new posting is a homecoming of sorts.

“You were the first person to interview me after I joined TrueCar,” he told me on the “Autoline” show.

During that Q&A, I had said to him: “When you left Hyundai, some people speculated you might end up as a college professor at a school like Stanford. Are you interested in a professorship?”

He laughed and said, “I’m more interested in making change in the auto industry.”

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Sep 21, 2015

oh, the irony... It's an interesting topic tho. While the Google cars showed huge potential and good efficiency - they don't have a chance against the serious players in the business.
There is also the question - who will want a self driving car? i love driving, i don't even like automatics, because the feel is not the same. Self driving car? No way!

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