CTO of Google's Self-Driving Car Project Steps Down

The sudden departure of Chris Urmson is the latest in a growing string of high-profile exits from Google's self-driving car initiative.

Google self-driving car

Chris Urmson, chief technology officer of Google parent Alphabet's autonomous car initiative, and one of its longest-serving engineers, has left the project apparently to explore other opportunities.

In a post on Medium, Urmson offered no explanation for his seemingly abrupt decision to resign from his position seven and a half years after leaving Carnegie Mellon University to join Google. "I've decided the time is right to step down and find my next adventure," Urmson wrote.

"After leading our cars through the human equivalent of 150 years of driving and helping our project make the leap from pure research … I am ready for a fresh challenge."

Urmson's departure is the latest in a series of recent high-profile exits from the project. Other senior engineers who have left the autonomous car initiative, according to The New York Times, include Jiajun Zhu, one of the founding members of the self-driving car team at Google, and Dave Ferguson, computer vision and machine learning lead for the initiative. Anthony Levandowski, former technical lead of Google's self-driving car group, left the group earlier this year to start his own venture.

The departures come just months after Google hired former Hyundai executive and veteran of the auto industry John Krafcik to head its autonomous car initiative.

There is nothing in Urmson's post to even hint that his departure and those of the other executives has anything to do with Krafcik's stewardship of the project. In fact, Krafcik in a tweet lauded Urmson: "Chris is an incredible colleague & leader. Thank you for your passion & humility. Good luck on your new adventures!"

But, according to two former Google employees quoted by The Times, Urmson was apparently unhappy with Krafcik's leadership and had quarreled several months ago with Google co-founder Larry Page over the direction in which the project was headed. Google did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

In his message on Medium, Urmson expressed confidence that his departure would have no negative impact on the future of the autonomous car initiative. Starting with an initial goal of having a modified 2009 Toyota Prius self-drive 100,000 miles, Google has steadily progressed in its efforts to make autonomous cars a commercial reality.

"One hundred thousand miles soon became five hundred thousand—and soon our cars were capable enough to have people outside our team try them during their freeway commutes," he wrote. Some 1.8 million miles of testing later, the time has come to step down, Urmson said. "If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky."

The autonomous car initiative is part of Google's semi-secret X research and development group, now a subsidiary of Alphabet. The group is home to some of the company's most ambitious moonshot ventures. Besides the self-driving car project, some of the more recognizable efforts from the group include Google [X] Life Sciences, Google Glass and Google Watch.

Google hopes to commercialize its self-driving vehicle technology over the next few years. The company is reportedly planning to launch an Uber-like ridesharing service using a fleet of autonomous vehicles. There have also been reports about the company at least initially planning on positioning its technology as suitable for use as shuttles in airports, universities and facilities with large campuses.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.