SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time I spoke with John Krafcik was in April, during a visit to TrueCar’s flashy new office in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.
Krafcik was a year into his tenure as president of TrueCar, but we mostly chatted about Tesla and self-driving cars, two of his fascinations. He asked me if I had seen the graphic that Adam Jonas, an automotive analyst at Morgan Stanley, had just released.
I hadn’t, so Krafcik went to his desk and pulled out a pad of paper. He sketched a simple graphic with four quadrants and two dimensions: human drivers versus robot drivers, and private cars versus shared cars.
In the bottom left was the auto industry of today. In the top right was Google, with robots taking the wheel of shared pods. In the bottom right was the sharing economy -- on-demand services like Uber and Car2Go -- and in the top right were companies such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz, which aspire to build autonomous cars for personal use.
I picked up the chart and looked it over. It made perfect sense.
“You can keep it,” Krafcik told me, as if it were a souvenir.
Krafcik didn’t invent the chart. But he found it as fascinating as I did.
It described a future auto industry defined by a tension between human control and autonomous cars. Here in Silicon Valley, there is an intense conviction that the auto industry will not stick to the status quo in the bottom-left corner for long, but will instead become a battleground of four business models competing for supremacy.
As the CEO of Google’s self-driving cars project, Krafcik will have a chance to build the new business model in the top right corner, but more importantly, to serve as the statesman who makes this competition a friendlier one.
Anyone who has spent any time with Krafcik knows he isn’t a typical auto executive. In a business where it’s easy to get fixated on the next month of sales, the next quarter of earnings and the next model year, Krafcik takes the long view.
He’s a student of history. One of his first speeches as CEO of Hyundai Motor America came at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show. The economy was in shambles. Car sales had tanked. Krafcik was thinking about how to help Hyundai right now, but he was also thinking big. This was a moment in history. But what type of moment was it?