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Is Automated Driving growing up? Chris Urmson is leaving Google: an analysis.

Google's self-driving car project is at a crossroads. (Photo: Google)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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The company’s CTO is leaving – the self-driving car project seems to be at a crucial point.

Where is Google’s self-driving car project headed? Google CTO Chris Urmson has apparently fallen out with founder and CEO Larry Page over this strategic question. He is leaving the company along with two other high-ranking software engineers, according to the New York Times. This represents the latest in a series of brain drain from Google’s driverless car unit – a clear indication that the search engine giant’s project is at a crossroads.

Urmson, a roboticist and previously a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is considered a pioneer of autonomous driving. He was part of a team of engineers that placed second in the 2005 Darpa Grand Challenge contest for automated driving. In 2009, he joined Google to develop the famous pod-shaped Google car. In 2013, he took over the project’s lead after fellow visionary Sebastian Thrun left the company to become a research professor in Stanford.  Last year, Google hired former Hyundai USA CEO John Krafcik to head the unit. According to the New York Times, Urmson is said to have been “unhappy with the direction of the car project under Mr. Krafcik’s leadership and quarreled privately several months ago with Larry Page over where it was headed.” In a blog post, Urmson stated that he was “ready for a fresh challenge.”

What this means for Automated Driving

The self-driving car project is part of the Google X research group which is “under increasing pressure to show that at some point the company can expect a financial windfall from its projects,” according to the NY Times. Urmson’s departure can therefore be seen as part of a larger trend: First came the visionaries, the people who had a dream and did everything to prove the concept. Like winning the Darpa Challenge or, like Ernst Dickmanns, bringing the legendary “Prometheus” project to life in Europe.

Then, pioneers like Urmson were crucial for establishing the idea that autonomous vehicles could really and truly revolutionize mobility for a mass market. So the remarkably high fluidity in the job market that we have seen lately can be seen as the signal that the next phase has started: the moment of truth, when the technology is moving out of its childhood stage and commercial viability becomes pivotal.

Obviously, different companies and different technological flavors of automated driving are at different stages of the process, but one thing is certain: automated driving is starting to enter the next phase - it is starting to grow up.

Where do the creative heads move?

That’s why many of Google’s pioneers are searching for new creative playgrounds. Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, two experts on machine vision technology, recently left Google to found an as-yet-unannounced start-up. Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Google’s car project, exited earlier this year with various colleagues to form the autonomous trucking start-up Otto.

On a different note, Google’s latest departures also once again shed light on the increasing fight for talents that defines the automated driving business. Experts are more sought-after than ever. And it’s the cross-industry job transitions that will prove the most fruitful – when old industry and new industry meet and put things to work. Such as Google, for instance – they hired auto industry veteran Krafcik last year. Tesla enticed away longtime Audi executive Peter Hochholdinger, while Volkswagen headhunted digital expert Johann Jungwirth from Apple. To be continued.

Read the full New York Times article here.

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Angelo Rychel
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