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Who Is Google's Self-Driving Car CEO, and Where Is He Heading?

He's an exec that speaks car and geek.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

John Krafcik, the man Google picked as CEO of its self-driving car division, has one obvious credential: He’s a car guy. Krafcik worked for a joint venture of Toyota and GM, then Ford, then he ran Hyundai in the U.S., turning the Korean automaker from an also-ran to a viable contender with the giants of the industry.

But other parts of his resume may have attracted Google even more.

Krafcik trained as a mechanical engineer and has researched streamlined production models. And his current job is at TrueCar, a pricing website for car purchases and a tech company that works closely with car dealers. That background may signal where Google is heading with its autonomous vehicle arm after taking, with Krafcik’s hire, its biggest step from a far-flung research project to an actual business.

“He’s the rare executive that’s both in the tech world and the auto world,” said Stefan Heck, CEO of Nauto, an autonomous driving startup. Earlier electric car companies, he added, saw their dreams spoiled by siding with one or the other. “They were either run by tech execs who don’t understand the auto world or auto executives who get tripped up on tech,” Heck said.

Google’s car nerds have never tripped on the tech. The two directors of its self-driving project so far, Sebastian Thrun and Chris Urmson, are among the world’s experts on autonomous driving tech. But they are not auto executives.

Several executives in the car tech sector said Google needs a public face familiar with the industry, its web of networks and long cycles, to create any traction for a potential business. Krafcik is such a face. Beyond his deep industry ties, he is versed, through Hyundai and TrueCar, with the distribution chain, one area where Google is very weak.

He also wrote two manifestos on “lean production,” something that may not calm those in the sector convinced Google is aiming to be a manufacturer. Google insists it is not.

If we take Google at its word, what business models does that leave? One common theory is that Google would hand over an operating system of autonomous features, in exchange for the data and use of its services; a self-driving Android.

That’s roughly how its in-car dashboard system, Android Auto, operates now. However, running an OS for a full vehicle, with its wealth of safety features and parts made by disparate companies, may be too complicated, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies the field. He expects Google may enter into arrangements with companies in the broader automotive industry in the not-too-distant future — it currently works with Roush Industries, an auto manufacturing firm, for its self-driving cars — rather than release open source software. Others guess Google may license self-driving software and gizmos for dealership or a delivery companies.

Enter Krafcik, who has a tough pitch to make. As the mobile tech giants have more aggressively entered the car world, they have set most of the older industry on edge.

“There’s some nervousness that the traditional model of manufacturing and sales are really getting away from what companies are used to,” Smith said. “Google and Apple are not the usual suppliers. It almost inverts the pyramid even more.”

Google tends to inspire more concern, largely because its forte, maps and automation, are central to car experiences of the future. Those concerns hang over the negotiations around Google’s in-car dashboard software, said several sources. So does the fact that carmakers are well aware of its ambitions for fully autonomous vehicles.

“Nobody thinks that Google is just stopping at the current Android technology,” one executive familiar with the talks said.

For a while, Google was well ahead of the curve in self-driving tech. Now it’s seeing competition catch up. Honda recently won approval for testing autonomous cars in California, the tenth in the state. Toyota is pouring millions into autonomous tech. Uber too. Apple is doing something. Reports of Apple’s courtship with BMW have fueled more speculation and excitement in the industry than Google’s moves lately, several sources said.

Google’s choice of Krafcik surprised some in the car industry. Many thought Google would try to poach an executive from one of the big four car companies. While Krafick has tech experience with TrueCar, it wasn’t unblemished. The company, which went public last year, has seen an influx of lawsuits from dealerships, which pay it for sales leads, a problem that nearly sunk it in 2012.

TrueCar reported revenue of $65.3 million and losses of $14.7 million in the second quarter. Last month, its CEO, Scott Painter, resigned.

Still, Krafcik clearly appealed to Mountain View top brass. His former firm, Hyundai, is a willing partner — it was the first carmaker to adapt Android Auto in 2015 models. But perhaps it was Krafcik’s time before the car world. He, like Google’s co-founders and many of its execs, studied engineering at Stanford.

Update: An earlier version of this article said Smith predicted that Google would enter licensing agreements soon. Instead, he suggested partnerships with broader companies in the auto industry. The story has been changed to reflect that.

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