Google hires TrueCar president to head self-driving car project

General Views From The Chicago Auto Show
John Krafcik, president and chief executive officer of the Hyundai Motor America, stands for a photograph at a media preview for the Chicago Auto Show in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. Hyundai Motor Co., South Korea's largest automaker, is unveiling two additional versions of its Elantra compact to grab a bigger share of the U.S. small-car market from competitors including Honda Motor Co. Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Tim Boyle — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Google has hired automotive veteran John Krafcik as CEO of its self-driving car project, a signal that the company is preparing to turn its experiment into a business.

Krafcik will take over the newly formed position in late September, Google announced Sunday. Most recently, Krafcik was president of online car shopping service TrueCar (TRUE), a position he has held since April 2014.

“This is a great opportunity to help Google (GOOG) develop the enormous potential of self-driving cars,” Krafcik said in an emailed statement. “This technology can save thousands of lives, give millions of people greater mobility, and free us from a lot of the things we find frustrating about driving today. I can’t wait to get started.”

Krafcik has deep automotive roots that include management stints at Ford (F) and Hyundai Motor America. However, he’s not just some automotive management flak. He’s really known for his product development prowess—a strength that Google is likely attracted to.

Krafcik has a mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University and was one of the first engineers for New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI, the former joint-venture plant in Fremont, Calif., operated by Toyota and General Motors (GM). The NUMMI plant, which closed in 2010, is now owned and occupied by Tesla Motors (TSLA).

He went to work at the International Motor Vehicle Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before signing on at Ford, where he held various product development leadership positions over 14 years, including as chief engineer for the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator vehicles. Krafcik later joined Hyundai Motor America and eventually became president and CEO, a position he held for five years. After presiding over a period of expanding market share and consumer regard for the brand, Hyundai suddenly replaced Krafcik in late 2013 with David Zuchowski, who had been head of sales for the automaker.

Google launched its self-driving car project in 2009 and until recently has primarily tested its software in Mountain View, Calif. In July, the company began testing its outfitted Lexus RX450h sport-utility vehicles in Austin, Texas.

Google has 23 Lexus RX450h SUVs self-driving on public streets in Mountain View and Austin. The company also has 25 two-seater prototypes, five of which are self-driving in Mountain View. These prototype cars, which look more like gumdrops on wheels, are coming to Austin later this month.

Google says it still has a lot to learn about how people perceive its vehicles, and hopes to run pilot programs with its built-from-ground-up prototypes at some point, spokeswoman Kara Berman told Fortune. For now, the company says it’s focused on building out a team. Chris Urmson, the former director of Google’s self-driving project, will stay on and lead technical development.

The Krafcik hire illustrates Google’s need to find someone with the technical and auto industry expertise to expand the project—possibly into a business. But not just yet.

Google was quick to note in an email that the “self-driving car project is not becoming an Alphabet company at this stage, though it’s certainly a good candidate to become one at some point in the future.” The self-driving project is still part of the company’s X lab. In August, Google announced it had created a holding company called Alphabet. Google, which is under Alphabet, is the company’s legacy business and includes search, advertising, YouTube, and Android. Meanwhile, Alphabet houses its experiments, including Google X, health-related investigations as well as Nest and two investment arms.

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