The most high-profile autonomous vehicle engineer seems ready to return to the stage.
When Chris Urmson announced he was leaving Google X’s self-driving car project, he wrote: “If I can find another project that turns into an obsession and becomes something more, I will consider myself twice lucky.”
It turns out the person who is perhaps the most widely regarded technologist in the autonomous vehicle space may have found just that in a new self-funded venture that he might unveil early next year.
Urmson did not return an email asking for comment about his plans.
The company, several sources told Recode, will focus on developing self-driving software, as well as data and hardware. This “full package” of autonomous technologies could then be sold to car makers who want to create and then alter their own offerings, in a manner not unlike how Google launched its Android efforts with both mobile software and hardware.
But other sources said the configuration of the startup could take many forms and how it will be organized is still in flux.
What’s certain — that’s how we got wind of it — is that Urmson was talking to a number of other top engineers in the space from companies like Uber, Apple and Tesla to join him and could easily attract an A-team of techies who want to strike out on their own. He has yet to raise any outside funding, but, given his strong reputation, one person said that “people will throw piles of money at Chris because he is the real deal.”
It’s not exactly a surprise that Urmson is striking off on his own to create something new. Urmson was the main engineer who built the code running Google’s autonomous software, according to a source. It was created and has been housed in its X “moonshot” unit, a subsidiary of Alphabet.
Additionally, many affiliated with the high-profile car project have started similar or competing companies immediately after their departure. The project’s co-founder Anthony Levandowski, for example, started self-driving trucking company Otto, which Uber acquired in August.
And two of the top engineers at the effort, Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson, left at the same time as Urmson and started their own artificial intelligence company that will work with self-driving cars called Nuro.ai.
Several sources said Urmson — a much sought after techie in a fast-moving space — was approached by a number of companies, such as self-driving startup Zoox, to join their companies, but decided he wanted to run his own show.
That’s also no surprise, given his experience at Google. Close to a year before Urmson left the project, where he had become the de facto face of it, Google hired John Krafcik, a 25-year car industry veteran who previously led Hyundai’s business in the U.S., as its first ever CEO.
Urmson, who served as the director of that project at the time, stayed on as CTO. But sources said he was not happy with the changes and the slow pace of development of its products that came after more ambitious promises for expansion of the concept by Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
Alphabet has yet to disclose what the plan for commercializing its car is, but it’s clear the project is expecting to “graduate” from X soon to stand on its own. As we reported earlier, the project is hiring a number of key executives as it ramps up to becoming its own Alphabet company.
Now it could have even more competition in a space that is getting inundated with new startups and lots of investment. Urmson will certainly figure large in that scene and will be a potent rival to the place he played a key role in creating.
Interestingly, since he quit X, sources said Urmson is not likely bound by any non-compete agreement, although he cannot use any code he wrote while working at the tech giant. Silicon Valley engineers like Urmson sign what is called an “invention assignment agreement,” which bars them from using confidential information and intellectual property from their previous employer.
But he is more likely to be bound by a non-solicitation agreement with Alphabet, which prevents him from recruiting its self-driving engineers. That said, they would be free to contact Urmson, whose departure caused much consternation internally, due to his well-regarded reputation and affable personality.
If you want to see that in action, here is a link to Urmson’s really good Ted Talk from early 2015 on how self-driving cars work.