Job Cuts At Enigmatic Apple Car Project Underscore Self-Driving Tech's Hard Realities

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks while unveiling new products during a launch event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 30, 2018 in New York.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks while unveiling new products during a launch event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 30, 2018 in New York.Getty Images

Little is known about Apple’s plans for the automotive space, after years of speculation ranging from electric cars to fully autonomous vehicles. News that it’s shedding jobs on its self-driving tech team suggests even Apple isn’t entirely certain.

More than 200 people were let go this week from the internal unit that’s been developing Apple’s autonomous technology, Apple said Thursday after CNBC first reported news of the cuts at what’s known as Project Titan.

“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,” the company said in an emailed statement. “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 move comes amid a growing consensus that autonomous vehicle technology is likely to take longer to master than many advocates believed. Even Alphabet’s Waymo, which has the most advanced program and which launched a limited commercial self-driving service in Phoenix in December, has cautioned that “the time period is going to be longer than you might think” for self-driving vehicles to be everywhere. The death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous Uber test vehicle last March also called into question just how ready the technology is for public deployment.

(For more on the launch of its commercial service, see At Waymo, It’s Launch Time For Google’s Biggest Moonshot)

Even so, Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise and scores of other autonomous tech players are committing billions of dollars to the technology and have outlined long-term aspirations to offer automated ride and delivery services. Apple has never said whether it's designing a vehicle or just building artificial intelligence or the hardware, like sensors, that goes with self-driving cars.

“Inside Apple, there are certainly people who understood the purpose of this [autonomous vehicle] program,” said Gartner research analyst Mike Ramsey. “Outside of Apple nobody really understands what it is.”

Apple began testing a small fleet of modified Lexus RX hybrid crossovers in California in early 2017 and currently has a total of 72 permitted autonomous vehicles in the state, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. It has also filed a disengagement report with the state, detailing how frequently in the past year a human safety driver had to take over control of the vehicle from the autonomous system, and that will be publicly available within the next few weeks, said agency spokesman Martin Greenstein.

Its test program, and some patent filings, are among the few specific public details known. Apple cut hundreds of engineers from the program in late 2016, according to media reports that the company never confirmed. That was after it reportedly hired more than a 1,000 people for the project. Doug Field, who resigned as Tesla’s head of engineering in 2018, rejoined Apple last August to lead Project Titan along with Bob Mansfield, Apple's senior vice president of technologies.

The job cuts within the group were part of a restructuring under Titan’s new leadership, according to CNBC.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has avoided sharing any specifics about Titan, though he said in an August 1, 2017, earnings call that “we do have a large project going and are making a big investment in this”—with an added caveat.

"From our point of view, autonomy is sort of the mother of all AI projects, and the autonomous systems can be used in a variety of ways, and a vehicle is only one,” he said. “There are many different areas of it, and I don't want to go any further with that."