Auto veteran takes the wheel at Google's driverless car division

Google's prototype self-driving car

Google

Google has hired auto industry veteran and former Hyundai U.S. CEO John Krafcik to run its self-driving car program.

Krafcik, 53, is credited with turning around Hyundai's U.S. operations, leading the company to huge sales increases after the Great Recession. Early in his career as a mechanical engineer he worked at a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors where he became a proponent of lean manufacturing.

For Google, Krafcik's hiring shows the tech giant is serious about turning autonomous cars into a sustainable business. Google has promised to have a self-driving car in the public's hands by 2020. Krafcik takes over as the autonomous car CEO later this month.

Traditional automakers such as Mercedes, General Motors and Toyota are working to gradually automate functions in the car until vehicles become fully capable of driving themselves, possibly by 2025.

Google stunned the auto industry in 2010 by announcing that it was straying beyond its primary, Internet search and advertising business to develop self-driving vehicles. The company said in a statement Monday that it's made more progress on its autonomous car technology than it ever thought was possible.

"We still have a lot to learn about how people perceive our vehicles and how they'll want to fit this technology in to their lives," the statement said.

There are legal and ethical issues to work through before driverless cars go mainstream. Google's cars also require extremely detailed mapping, which has only been done in limited areas. Convincing drivers that driverless technology is safe is another hurdle that the company must overcome.

The Mountain View, California, company has been testing several dozen self-driving cars near its Silicon Valley headquarters, and more recently in Austin, Texas. To learn the tricks of driving, its cars have driven more than 1 million miles on highways or city streets.

Some experts predict that the traditional car companies will continue to make the cars consumers buy and park in their driveway, relying on their decades-long history of research and development and a deep understanding of drivers' needs and habits. When the tech companies roll out driverless cars, they likely will be self-driving taxis for urban areas.

Krafcik is a Stanford-trained mechanical engineer who also has a business degree. After working at the GM-Toyota venture, he went to Ford Motor Co., where he held engineering posts including chief engineer on the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator large SUVs. At Hyundai, he led U.S. marketing and sales.

Hiring Krafcik also sets the stage for Google to create a separate autonomous car company under its new holding company called Alphabet. The company's statement says the project isn't ready to become a separate company yet, "though it's certainly a good candidate to become one at some point in the future."

Google shares fell $3.85, or 0.6 percent, to $621.92 in midday trading.