Self-driving car guru Chris Urmson, of Silicon Valley stalwart Google, called it quits after completing 1.8 million miles in seven years.
It was such a surprise in the automobile industry that Urmson told the world on Friday, via a blog post titled “The View from the Front Seat of the Google Self-Driving Car: A New Chapter,” that he has decided “the time is right to step down and find my next adventure.”
“Today will be my last day on the project as CTO. 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.”
Whatever comes next now for the autonomous car genius has puzzled some observers as to what he meant by “a new chapter,” or “my next adventure” that he is referring to.
Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic can’t help but speculate: “It’s… so far, a big mystery as to what that means—for Urmson, for Google, and for any of its competitors.”
“The biggest question is: Was he poached? Uber, famously greedy for autonomous-car talent, has recently announced several expansions to its own self-driving car ambitions—including testing driverless vehicles on public roads in Pittsburgh, and a new mapping effort in Mexico. Uber also has a track record of scooping up Google’s best. It hired the software designer Brian McClendon, previously one of Google’s most high-profile executives, to head its maps division last year.”
For his part, Urmson did not specify where he is headed. “If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky,” he said. No clues, whatsoever.
LaFrance suggests it could be Apple. Maybe. Or maybe not.
The iPad and iPhone maker has been granted a patent for its own “future vehicle” project in partnership with BAE Systems Hägglunds AB designs Sweden, according to Patently Apple. There is no indication, however, that the patent has anything to do with self-driving vehicles.
But Urmson is not the only man who left the now-financially-struggling Google. According to the New York Times, Urmson’s departure is only “the latest in a string of departures by important technologists working on the autonomous car project.”
Urmson only followed the lead of two others in Google’s self-driving vehicle project: principal software engineer Jiajun Zhu and software lead Dave Ferguson. Both are said to be experts on so-called “machine vision technology.”
Earlier this year, former Google Car engineer Anthony Levandowski led an exodus of Google employees. Lior Ror, the man behind the success of Google Maps, followed suit.
The most likely reason why Urmson suddenly left, one that he also did not mention in his blog, was that he “has been unhappy with the direction of the car project under Mr. [John] Krafcik’s leadership,” which, as the New York Times noted, Urmson disputed.
Krafcik, who was a former president and chief executive of Hyundai America, joined Google last year to lead the autonomous car project “as part of a plan to spin the effort out as a stand-alone company under the Alphabet umbrella.”
According to Richard Saintvilus of Investopedia, such a move has in effect made the self-driving vehicle project join Google’s Fiber Internet Service and Nest smart phone unit in the Alphabet’s “Other Bets” segment. Unfortunately, the “Other Bets” registered an operating loss of $859 million in the second quarter of this year, following the first quarter’s $806 million loss.
Whether these losses have anything to do with the departure from Google’s self-driving car project, Saintvilus cannot say.
“But notably,” Saintvilus said, “they are leaving roughly two months after Tony Fadell, CEO of smart-thermostat company, Nest Labs, announced he was leaving Google only two years after Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion.”
Coinciding this string of departure from Google’s self-driving car unit is the latest report so far about the industry to hit the news headlines, which Bloomberg calls “a revolution” that “has spurred the biggest two years of car-supplier takeovers in a decade, with more coming as parts makers struggle to keep up with the pace of technological transformation.”
[Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Images]