If Silicon Valley and Detroit had a baby, it would be John Krafcik. Since September, the former Hyundai CEO has helmed Google’s Self Driving Car Project, leading a team of software engineers on a quest to upend mobility as we know it--beginning with an army of driverless marshmallow cars currently clipping around northern California at a maximum speed of 25 mph.
But though he’s directing one of the automotive industry’s most visible disruptors (the other is Tesla), Krafcik spent most of his career in traditional automotive manufacturing. He also happens to be a celebrity of sorts in the micro-world of lean manufacturing, having literally written the definitive book—along with some colleagues from MIT—on the subject.
When he gave a speech to an audience of OEM executives at the Automotive News World Congress in early January, Krafcik warmed up the crowd by talking about how he hadn’t left his car days behind. He spoke nostalgically of his first car, a 1973 Ford Capri, and shared that his college-age son, an intern at the Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif., has a desk about 100 feet away from the site of Krafcik’s own office three decades ago, when he began his career at NUMMI, the GM/Toyota collaboration project that used to occupy the complex.
The automotive industry, Krafcik said, “inspires remarkable passion in the hearts and minds of those who care for it. And I consider myself one of those people.”
He emphasized the importance of partnerships between Google and the OEMs and first-tier suppliers. Some of them are already in progress: Continental, Roush, Bosch and LG have all worked with Google on the cars' technology.
Here are the highlights from his talk and subsequent Q&A session (where he was nondescript yet friendly in his answers, channeling the vibe of Google’s self-driving cars):
In the last few months I’ve often been asked, is Google going to form partnerships, and what do those partnerships look like? The truth is we’ve been thinking about all sorts of things. … The fact of the matter is we already have great partners here in Michigan who helped us build our self-driving car prototype.
We understand the self-driving car is made up of many parts, many different technologies, and it’s going to take a lot of our partners to get the work done. Everyone on the OEM side--you know this well--you’re very good at putting teams together. In the next stages of our development we’re going to be partnering more and more and more.
Automakers have a track record of producing cars at scale. And as our technology progresses, we hope to work with many of you guys. OEMs, Tier One suppliers, NGOs, there are all sorts of partnerships in order to deliver this technology around the world.
On expanding testing conditions beyond sunny and partly cloudy (the default weather conditions for the current self-driving test “countries” of Austin, Texas, and Mountainview, Calif.)
Our cars are getting better and better. We’re introducing them to new environments. El Nino provides a wonderful testing ground for us in Mountainview. We’ve been experiencing a lot of rain, and the cars are doing great. We’ve also started to introduce our cars to some snow testing in the mountains of Tahoe.
On the team at the Self-Driving Car Project
One thing that's great ... it’s almost all engineers. Software engineers, of course, but also hardware engineers working on sensors. And we’ve got a wonderful location in what we call our “Moonshot Factory,” which co-locates hardware engineers and software engineers. We have sensor lab design activities … and a very small group of us who are working on other aspects of technology.
On OEMs’ eagerness
Just about every OEM has been interested in speaking with us, perhaps to just understand where we are. And we’ve taken all those meetings to understand their points of view and what might be the best setup.
On why the Google car, with a partner like Roush that’s known for building 800-horsepower engines, has to look like something out of a Pokemon cartoon.
There was something that happened in November that really helped me understand the genius behind the design of our Google prototype. We were pulled over by a motorcycle cop for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone) in Mountainview. There was a photograph taken, and the sympathetic reaction from folks who saw that photograph, it was just classic: Policemen stopped our cute little koala car—what could it possibly have done wrong?
That was the designer’s goal—to say “Look, we are an accessible safe, thing. We don’t want to cause any harm. Give us an opportunity to build your trust in us.”