For over four years, Apple has been working on an electric self-driving vehicle, nicknamed Project Titan. The project, which first began ramping up in late 2014 and early 2015, has gone through a number of supposed shifts and changes, including various pivots and reboots. Now, Apple has confirmed that its cut 200 employees from the Titan workforce, some of which were reassigned to other projects at the company.
“We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple,” an Apple spokesperson told CNBC.
“We continue to believe there is a huge opportunity with autonomous systems, that Apple has unique capabilities to contribute, and that this is the most ambitious machine learning project ever.”
Apple’s autonomous car division was last in the news back in August, when it hired ex-Tesla engineer and former Apple employee Doug Field to return to the fold and work alongside Bob Mansfield on the self-driving vehicle project.
Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans include Intel chips. (Credit: Intel Corporation)
Apple has been extremely quiet about its self-driving car initiative, to the point that most of what we “know” about the company’s ambitions has been limited to innuendo, speculation, and leaks. Tim Cook has publicly acknowledged that Apple is working on self-driving technology, but there have still been reports that the company pulled back to emphasize software development rather than attempting to build its own autonomous vehicle. Apple’s partnership with Volkswagen earlier this year was read by some as the effective end of the company’s effort to build its own radical design. At the same time, reports from September 2018 indicate that Apple had the third-largest fleet of vehicles approved for testing in California, behind GM Cruise (175 vehicles) and Waymo (88 vehicles). As of that writing, Apple had 70 cars approved for testing.
Overall, some of the hype on self-driving cars has died down over the past 12 months, thanks in no small part to the prominent struggles of its biggest players. Uber hit and killed a pedestrian. Tesla had multiple high-profile accidents and has since ceased offering a “full self-driving” upgrade for its Autopilot software. Waymo didn’t have any major calamities, but a blockbuster New Yorker report from October claimed that there were far more accidents associated with Google’s early self-driving efforts than previously known, including three serious incidents. Google’s self-driving taxi service, Waymo One, may have technically launched in December, but its only open to a relative handful of people in one geographic area, with safety drivers still behind the wheel at all times.
Apple’s decision to shift 200 people away from Titan doesn’t say anything great about the project’s near-term profitability, but given the general difficulties in the self-driving car market, we wouldn’t draw any giant conclusions, either. Every company in the business is still making fairly incremental progress. With that said, the other companies working in this field tend to at least talk about it on occasion. If Apple has a major solution coming, they’re sure being quiet about it.
Top image credit: Bill Howard