Navigant Research Blog

John Krafcik Takes the Steering Wheel of Google Car Project

Sam Abuelsamid — September 29, 2015

Someday, Google’s vision of cars without steering wheels, accelerators, or brake pedals may come to fruition. For the foreseeable future, however, intelligent people will still be necessary to guide the process of actually developing and building those machines. Incidentally, Google has just hired one of the smartest in the business, John Krafcik. The former Ford, Hyundai, and TrueCar executive is now the CEO of Google’s self-driving vehicle program.

As the former head of product planning and later CEO of Hyundai Motor America, Krafcik demonstrated his ability to run an operation that develops, manufactures, and markets vehicles to a mainstream audience. Prior to his decade with Hyundai, Krafcik spent 14 years at Ford, where he is reputed to have coined the term “lean manufacturing” in an article he wrote while working on his MBA at MIT.

Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that by 2025, approximately 45 million light duty vehicles with at least Level 2 semi-autonomous capability will be sold globally every year. Level 2 is defined as a system that can automatically control at least two primary functions—such as steering and speed. Widespread adoption of Level 4 systems that can handle all primary driving functions without human intervention are unlikely before the 2030s.

Google and the Automotive World

For Google, Krafcik brings a reality check to the company’s automotive ambitions. Unlike Google’s primary businesses, the automotive industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the world, and the product can put lives at risk. Representatives from several manufacturers have acknowledged that they have been approached by Google about partnering on autonomous vehicles. However, Google’s approach so far has been to have manufacturers supply a vehicle platform while Google provides a black box of software that the manufacturers have neither control nor influence over. Given the many unresolved legal and ethical questions around autonomous vehicles, this approach has been rejected so far.

Krafcik knows how the auto industry functions and why it so often appears to be extremely conservative in rolling out state-of-the-art technology. He has a keen understanding of how to mass manufacture vehicles in high volumes and what mainstream consumers want in a vehicle. At the same time, he is an acknowledged risk taker in taking his companies into new market segments. Under his leadership at Hyundai, the brand steadily expanded from a second-tier purveyor of value, building credibility with consumers and critics so that it can now sell luxury cars like the Genesis without being laughed at.

Krafcik’s Credentials

This writer has known Krafcik for 8 years and he is clearly an engineer and manager that appreciates a challenge. Prior to being promoted to CEO at Hyundai’s American branch, the office had a rotating door of occupants who struggled with the home office’s demands. Krafcik managed to occupy the post for an unusually long 5 years and is likely the best candidate that Google could have hired.

Chris Urmson will continue leading the technical development side while Krafcik opens possibilities as this project evolves into a real business. Krafcik is well-respected in the industry, and if Google decides to pursue OEM partnerships, he is far more likely to be successful in brokering deals than those that have a distinctly Silicon Valley mindset. On the other hand, if Google opts to get into the manufacturing of cars, Krafcik knows that side of the business equally well—whether Google wants either its own factories or a contract builder like Magna Steyr to handle the work. Whichever path Google takes, the future looks interesting. And that is said without even knowing if Apple will get involved.

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