Google’s Self-Driving Car Chief Leaves Post

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The former director of Google’s autonomous car project will leave the company to seek new challenges.

Chris Urmson has announced that he will leave his post as the project’s chief technology officer in a blog post published Friday. Urmson will leave Google parent company Alphabet Inc., writes Jack Nicas for The Wall Street Journal.

More upheaval in Google’s self-driving car project

The announcement comes as Google tries to turn the autonomous car technology into a commercial product. Urmson said that he is “ready for a fresh challenge,” but gave no explanation for his departure.

“I’ve decided the time is right to step down and find my next adventure,” Mr. Urmson said in the blog post. “It has been a tremendous privilege and honor to be part of a team that has been at the forefront of bringing this life-saving technology to the world…I have every confidence that the mission is in capable hands.”

In an email exchange a spokesman for Google said that when the driverless car project started seven years ago, “the idea that a car could drive itself wasn’t much more than an idea. Chris has been a vital force for the project, helping the team move from a research phase to a point where this life-saving technology will soon become a reality. He departs with our warmest wishes.”

Tough times ahead for project

According to the New York Times two other engineers, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, will also leave the Google project to start their own company. They will follow in the footsteps of former Google driverless car executive Anthony Lewandowski, who left his post to work on self-driving tractor trailers earlier this year.

Data shows that Google’s autonomous vehicles are more reliable than those made by other companies. They have driven over 1.8 million miles on U.S. roads, with test drivers having to take control far less than those of other prototypes

The departure of Urmson means that few of the original members of Google’s driverless car team are left. The news comes as the project enters perhaps its most difficult period, in which it will have to deal with regulators and rivals in the automotive industry in order to bring a driverless car to market.

Google remains committed to full autonomy

Urmson believes that only fully autonomous vehicles should be released, rather than semiautonomous technology. He argues that it is not safe to expect a driver to control a vehicle after a period of inaction, and Alphabet is testing a prototype vehicle that does not have a steering wheel or a brake pedal. Urmson has said that he ultimately wants to take people out of driving entirely, given the fact that human error is a causal factor in 94% of crashes.

While that may sound like a lofty ambition, it does mean that it’s harder to get a driverless car to market. Both regulators and the public are still wary about giving up on human control entirely.

Semiautonomous systems have already been introduced by the likes of Tesla, and analysts believe that this is the more likely route map for the future. However a fatal crash involving a Tesla vehicle that was on autopilot mode has raised a fresh round of questions about the technology.

The Google driverless car project CEO, John Krafcik, said that the Tesla crash “confirms our sense that the route to full autonomy, though much harder, is the right route.”

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