John Krafcik, chief executive of the Google self-driving project Waymo, has stepped down from the $30bn group after more than five years and will be replaced by two top executives, the company said on Friday.
Krafcik, who will remain as an adviser, said he was leaving Waymo to “kick-off new adventures”, citing taking a “refresh period”, spending time with friends and family, and travelling, according to a blog post.
He told the Financial Times he had planned to exit “a bit sooner” but Covid-19 delayed the plans. He and his wife have already moved to Austin, Texas, where they purchased a home last year.
Waymo’s chief operating officer Tekedra Mawakana and chief technology officer Dmitri Dolgov will be taking over the helm.
The company has been considered the leader in driverless cars since Google invented the category in 2009, though the sector has been subject to overconfidence and hype.
In 2018 Waymo made deals with Jaguar and Fiat Chrysler to build more than 80,000 autonomous vehicles for a driverless fleet meant to start that year. Progress has been much slower, with the Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service only operating in one part of Phoenix today.
Still, under Krafcik, Waymo has remained ahead of its rivals, including General Motors-backed Cruise, Aurora and Argo AI. “If you look back over the last five to six years, they are far from the only ones who were overly optimistic about the timeline of introducing autonomy,” said Mike Ramsey, analyst at Gartner. “They didn’t achieve it, but nobody else has either.”
Before Krafcik joined in 2015, the Google project had completed public demonstrations of its autonomous two-seat vehicle, the Firefly. Under Krafcik, formerly the CEO of Hyundai’s North American operations, Waymo refocused efforts on the self-driving system alone — what it calls “the Driver” — choosing to partner with companies rather than compete with them.
Waymo last year struck deals to build driverless ride-hailing vehicles with Volvo, cargo vans with Fiat Chrysler and semi-trucks with Daimler, to name a few.
The company also raised $3.2bn at a valuation reported to be north of $30bn. Krafcik called the deal “the single largest capital raise for a pre-revenue company in the history of the universe”. Investors included Silver Lake and Andreessen Horowitz, the institutional investors T Rowe Price and Fidelity, and the car groups Magna and AutoNation.
Commenting on Krafcik’s unexpected exit, two people said the dual successor strategy could be indicative of a power struggle. One person said Mawakana, who has previously held roles at eBay, Yahoo and AOL, was the “natural choice” as Krafcik’s successor, but that such a choice could risk the ire of Dolgov, a co-founder of the company with previous stints at Google and Toyota’s research arm.
However, Krafcik said “there was absolutely no power struggle”. He pointed out that the succession plan was drawn up by him, then approved by Google owner Alphabet and the Waymo board. “There’s strong support for them both, and they work brilliantly together,” he said.
One person also noted that Alphabet finance chief Ruth Porat had been “tightening the screws” recently — Waymo has burnt through billions of dollars — and “there could be some increasing impatience” over when the project might begin to contribute meaningful revenue.