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Google self-driving team cruises solo into the sunset

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After a couple of quiet months, the Google self-driving car team has initiated a separation from internet giant’s experimental division X.

Although this has been a move in the making for some time, CEO John Krafcik hinted at the separation at the Nikkei Innovation Forum in October, however the latest development is more walk than talk, or drive than verbalize. According to Recode, the team has recently begun a recruitment drive, as well as a search for a new office space. From a recruitment perspective, these are jobs which already exist at X; Krafcik seemingly doesn’t want to share anymore and is looking to make it on his own.

After hiring Kevin Vosen as the new General Counsel, the team are now on the hunt for a ‘Head of Real Estate and Workplace Services’ who will be responsible for overseeing certain aspects of the expanded geographical footprint, office, lab and operational space. The minimum qualifications for the role are quite extensive, though ‘acting with integrity in all business transactions’ only makes it to the preferred qualifications; apparently if you’re good enough the occasional racial slur is okay. No wonder Google no longer uses the ‘don’t be evil’ tagline.

While this is not an unexpected move, it is quite a significant one. In recent months, Google’s self-driving team has been quite quiet and has shrunken into the shadows as other giants have been strong-arming the industry. Nokia thinks autonomous cars are major opportunity for 5G, Intel has made a $250 million bet on the segment, General Motors isn’t far away from real-world progress, Apple is fuelling rumours over its entry and Uber is starting to hit with the heavy weights. If Google doesn’t start to make more noise it could be at risk of falling behind.

In fairness, Google has the capabilities to take this segment by storm. Google Maps could be recognized as the most advanced consumer mapping technology worldwide, it’s an attractive place to work for young and talented engineers, and perhaps most importantly, there is some serious cash hidden under the bed to invest.

The autonomous vehicles segment will likely be one of the first in the IoT-era to provide rewards, and while recruiting for a few new positions is relatively minor news in the grand-scheme of things, its more symbolic. The self-driving team are moving out of the moonshot realms and into the world of reality.

Elsewhere within the industry, Michigan is making a play to be the centre of autonomous vehicles in the US. The state’s Governor Rick Snyder has recently announced four new bills which would certainly shake up affairs within the segment. The new laws allow testing of vehicles without steering wheels, pedals, or needed human control, which is not currently permitted in California. This could also play into the hands of the new Google team, as it has already developed prototypes for cars minus the steering wheel and driver.

Whether it’s by accident or just a very well-played hand (we get the impression the latter), Google is making is re-entry into the autonomous vehicles industry just as things are hotting up. Hopefully the team can put its previous humps and bumps firmly in the rear-view mirror.

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