Google is definitely building a real car

On Monday, Google announced that it had hired an executive with decades of auto-industry experience to run its self-driving car project.

John Krafcik started out at GM, spent over a decade at Ford, and then moved over to Hyundai at a time when the South Korean car maker was revamping its image in the US. More recently, he was president of TrueCar, a website that provides consumers with buying guidance.

Krafick is the most high-profile hire Silicon Valley has made so far in the push to create a driverless car. It’s also the clearest sign we’ve yet received that Google is doing more than fooling around with podmobiles that can operate without human control — Google is building a real car.

Krafcik’s hire also trumps, in impressive fashion, Apple’s recent hire of Doug Betts, a former quality czar at Chrysler. Betts’ hire was interpreted by many as a indication that Apple’s so-called “Project Titan” was more than simply an effort to expand the company’s involvement with the burgeoning tech side of cars — it was a signal that Cupertino was serious, and the Apple Car was on the horizon.

However, Betts left Chrysler last year after the automaker was clobbered by Consumer Reports, with numerous Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles finishing well down the publication’s reliability list. At the time, Betts said he was pursuing other interests, but the speculation was that Fiat Chrysler’s Fiat 500, relatively newly arrived in the US, got such poor reliability ratings from Consumer Reports that Fiat Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne was calling for a head.

The car of the future

So Apple’s big-name industry hire looked awkward to anyone following the actual car business. Betts is respected, but Krafcik brings skills to Google that anyone building the car of the future would want to have. Nearly his entire career has been committed to building the car of the future, long before Google or Apple got into the game.

He’s a leading exponent of what’s known as “lean manufacturing,” a production system closely identified with Toyota. The basic idea is that you don’t pile up inventories of components at assembly facilities to build cars. Rather, you optimise your supply chain so that vehicles are manufactured “just in time,” more efficiently and profitably, with production driven by demand.

Krafcik learned about this system in his first auto-industry job, at a plant in Fremont, CA that GM and Toyota set up jointly so that GM could get a crash course in the “Toyota Way.” It was called “New United Motor Manufacturing,” but in the mid-1980s everyone called it NUMMI — and we now know it as the Tesla Factory, where Elon Musk and company are building their car of the future.

The Toyota Way

Krafcik worked with a Toyota Way expert, Yoshimitsu Ogihara, and he credits the Japanese engineer for showing him the light, in a subtle manner.

“This was 1984, and no one really knew at the time that there was this big, huge difference between the way one company built cars and another company built cars,” Krafcik told MLive in an interview in 2012. “And I was a 23-year-old kid and I suddenly knew. So I worked there another couple years under Ogihara-san. He taught me so much but never through saying it.”

Lean manufacturing has become the dominant modern technique for building cars. Krafcik enhanced his credibility with this radical new approach by spending a few years at MIT to further his study of lean alongside James Womak, an academic closely identified with the manufacturing process who went on to start the Lean Enterprise Institute.

“He has a lot of bandwidth,” Womak said, adding that “this is the man for the job” when asked how Krafcik would handle the management of the Google Car. “He’s not wedded to the past, he floats very freely over the landscape, he connects the dots.”

After his time at Ford, Krafcik brought his expertise to Hyundai, revamping its presence in the US and taking the automaker to a position where it was competing with Japanese rivals and the Detroit Big Three.

The bottom line is that this guy can build cars and sell cars. He’s spent over 30 years doing it, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that putting Krafcik in charge of the Google Car and reassigning Chris Umson, who has been guiding the project, to a more technical role, means that Google is ready to take “Google Auto” to the next level.

Building a real car

Google is already a car company. When it moved its driverless car from the prototype stage to the production stage, it became a company that was assembling vehicles (even if it outsourced the work).

So does the Krafcik hire mean that Google is going to both build and sell cars?

Womak confessed no inside knowledge, but he did ask whether the auto industry is really about autos. In fact, he noted that Krafcik is particularly good at “mind meld of ecosystems,” which in the case of the Google Car could involve everything from vehicles to infrastructure to insurance.

At the moment, the focus is on autonomous driving. “They’d like to get there first with the best autonomy,” Womak said of Google’s efforts.

The future of transportation could involve a lot more than that. But for the moment, Google has committed to a much more robust development of the Google Car — and has sent a strong signal to both the traditional auto industry and Silicon Valley rivals that the project has moved far beyond being a science project.

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