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Google's self-driving car leader leaves the project

A visionary who could be described as having sparked the autonomous vehicle revolution, Chris Urmson, has left his position as chief technology officer of Google’s self-driving car project.

Urmson announced his departure in a blog post at the end of last week, leaving the company and project at a crucial point in its history, as Google tries to transition its driverless-car technology into a commercial product. Urmson directed the Google project until last year, when the former CEO of Hyundai USA and auto industry veteran, John Krafcik, took over as chief executive as part of an effort to commercialize the technology. Another co-founder of Google’s self-driving car project, Anthony Levandowski, left earlier this year to form Otto, which is developing self-driving trucks, and the New York Times has reported that two other top Google engineers, Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu, were leaving the project to start a new company.

Urmson, who is from Canada, earned his PhD at Carnegie Mellon University, where he had been working on slow-moving robots that could explore Mars on their own. In 2005, he became the technical leader of the university’s three entries in the US Defense Department’s DARPA Grand Challenge contest to have cars drive autonomously across the desert and then in a city environment. That event was won by a Stanford University team led by Sebastian Thrun, a previous professor at Carnegie Mellon. Urmson’s Carnegie Mellon team won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge and, two years later, he joined Google, recruited by his previous rival, Thrun. Urmson took over at Project X two years ago, when Thrun departed Google.

Urmson has always been a strong advocate of releasing only fully-automated driverless-car technology rather than the semi-automated systems that enable passengers to take control of the car, as he has said that it is unsafe to enable people to take control of a vehicle after minutes of inactivity. Urmson has said his goal is to remove people from the driving process altogether, an approach that is more difficult to bring to market, due to the reluctance of regulators and the public to cede complete control to the technology.

In his blog post on the Medium Corp site, Urmson said, “Seven and a half years ago I joined what was then a secret project within Google. For decades, self-driving cars have been dreamt of in science fiction. The question was could we make that dream a reality? Now, 1.8 million miles of autonomous driving later, I’ve decided the time is right to step down and find my next adventure. After leading our cars through the human equivalent of 150 years of driving, and helping our project make the leap from pure research to developing a product that we hope someday anyone will be able to use, I am ready for a fresh challenge. I have every confidence that the mission is in capable hands. I will be cheering along and following their progress. If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky.”

August 10, 2016

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