Apple’s self-driving car initiative is undergoing a “reboot,” according to three people familiar with the decision, The New York Times reported Sept. 9.
According to the report, Apple has laid off dozens of employees and shuttered parts of the project, as executives decide how to proceed.
Apple has never publicly acknowledged its self-driving car initiative—reportedly called Project Titan—although its hiring over the last few years has spoken volumes.
In July, Apple leased office space in Ottawa, across the street from QNX Software, and then hired the man who had created the QNX operating system, Dan Dodge. Never mind that Dodge retired in 2015, after a long and successful career as CEO of QNX. (In 2009, BlackBerry purchased QNX from Harman International for $200 million; today, the software is in more than 50 million vehicles.)
Apple also hired Doug Betts, who ran the quality control division at the Chrysler Group, as well as Paul Furgale, an autonomous vehicle researcher.
Earlier this year, Titan head Steve Zadesky left Apple, citing personal reasons, and Apple brought in Bob Mansfield—another previously retired executive—to replace Zadesky and oversee a “shift in strategy,” Bloomberg reported in July.
Mansfield, who had worked closely with Steve Jobs, officially retired from Apple in June 2012—though two months later agreed to come back and work on special projects, for a salary that reportedly made him the second-highest-compensated executive on the S&P 500.
Whether the recent layoffs are a part of Mansfield’s strategy or a sign that it wasn’t working is unclear.
Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research, points out that it’s impossible to know exactly what’s behind the layoffs, though certainly this project is distinct from others that Apple has worked on.
“The kind of people you employ to work on a car-related project are likely not easily redeployed within Apple to work on other things, whereas a lot of the time R&D projects that fizzle would be smaller, and the people more easily moved to other projects internally,” Dawson told eWEEK. “What makes this unique is that the team is pretty big and the people have specialized skills that make it hard to simply move them to a different project within Apple. That’s arguably why these changes of direction are more visible than usual. But the whole point of R&D is that you work on lots of things that never make their way into released products.”
Ezra Gottheil, a principal analyst with Technology Business Research (TBR), said early enthusiasm in the space has been replaced by realism, and Apple is likely re-evaluating its options.
“I’m sure Apple is continuing its R&D, but it probably does not need as much capacity to design and build vehicles as early as it first thought,” Gottheil told eWEEK.
He added that Apple’s plans in the car space had always seemed tentative.
“It would be far easier for Apple to partner with one or more automotive companies to design, build, sell and service autonomous vehicles,” Gottheil explained.
In the self-driving car space, Apple would face competition from old and new competitors.
Google parent company Alphabet has been trialing cars for years, while Tesla introduced Autopilot software in late 2014—which was involved in a fatal crash; Tesla announced an update to it on Sept. 11.
Uber has ambitious plans, and in August it acquired Otto—a company that makes self-driving modification kits for trucks—along with its intellectual property and development team.
“I think Apple was keeping its options open by maintaining a stream of research on becoming a car manufacturer,” said TBR’s Gottheil. “Either because of new partnerships or … because the schedule for such an effort has been pushed back, Apple has specialized resources it no longer needed.”