Apple’s Project Titan — a not so secretive project focusing on self-driving vehicles — has gone through several iterations. At one time, more than 1,000 engineers were assigned to the project and the company went to a lot of trouble to lease private test facilities far from the prying eyes of journalists and industry spies.
Rumors flew that Apple was preparing to build its own automobile, presumably electric, to take on Tesla. The two companies traded talent as engineers from both waltzed back and forth between them, lured, no doubt, by the promise of fat signing bonuses and lucrative salaries. At one point, Elon Musk made the snarky comment that Apple is where former Tesla engineers went to die.
Then, the rumors stopped. Many of the members of the Project Titan team got reassigned to other projects or were shown the door. Since then, Apple has been tight lipped about its plans to cash in on the autonomous vehicle boom that everyone says is coming. But there has been an interesting change in the saga this week.
Doug Field, the celebrated engineering rock star who led the Tesla Model 3 team until he too was upstaged and shown the door by Elon Musk earlier this year, has returned to the welcoming arms of Apple, where he once again will focus on autonomous driving systems under development by Project Titan, according to a report by Apple Insider.
Field has spent most of his career involved in the transportation industry. He started as a vehicle development engineer and team leader at Ford before moving into a prototype design and technical leadership role at DEKA Research & Development. From there, he became the chief technology officer at Segway before joining Apple in 2008. He was at Tesla for the past 5 years.
What is the takeaway from the return of Doug Field? Is Apple now ready to move forward with an ambitious program that will move the field of autonomous vehicles forward dramatically? For a company that just recently became the world’s first trillion dollar enterprise, it’s approach so far has been disturbingly chaotic and quixotic. While Waymo has been busy creating its own self-driving juggernaut — it has ordered 82,000 vehicles equipped with autonomous driving systems — Apple has dithered, frittering resources away on its on again, off again Project Titan program.
It is widely believed that the first company to bring true autonomous vehicles to market will enjoy a huge, perhaps insurmountable, economic advantage. If that’s true, Waymo is way out in front with whoever is in second place far behind. At this point, the only opening for Apple is to create self-driving systems that auto manufacturers can purchase and drop in to their vehicles. That will save those companies the cost of developing their own systems, which can be an incredibly expensive undertaking that takes years to complete.
But Apple, despite its prowess and reputation as a tech leader, will face growing competition from Chinese companies that are also pushing full speed ahead to create their own autonomous systems. Having Doug Field back on board may give Apple a boost, but it has spotted the rest of the competition a significant lead and there is a lot of ground to cover to catch back up.