Top Apple Car Engineer Leaves for Air Taxi Startup | Is Project Titan at Risk?

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Another former Tesla engineer has left Apple’s automotive team for seemingly greener pastures, the latest in a series of big recent shakeups to hit Project Titan.

In fact, it’s fair to say that Apple has lost more senior employees from its car team in 2021 than in all previous years combined. However, it’s also made a few significant additions, leading us to believe that this could be more about a change in direction than a harbinger of doom for Apple’s automotive plans.

Still, the departures have been significant, starting with three top engineers from the early days at the beginning of 2021, which seemed to culminate in September when project head Doug Field jumped ship to head up Ford’s next-generation car systems.

Now, CNBC reports that senior engineering director Dr. Michael Schwekutsch has also left Apple, with his LinkedIn profile noting a move to Archer, a startup that’s working on developing electric air taxis.

It’s an interesting move for Schwekutsch, who came to Apple two years ago from Tesla, much like Field did the year before. That probably wasn’t a coincidence, of course, although it’s also not surprising, as Apple has gained many of its top engineers from Tesla over the years.

Schwekutsch was the driving force behind Tesla’s electric powertrains, joining the rival carmaker in 2015 after two decades of working for other legendary powertrain engineering firms and designing electric and hybrid powertrains for high-profile vehicles like the BMW i8 and the Porsche 918 Spyder.

In fact, Schwekutsch’s arrival at Apple in 2019 was one of the best clues that the company was actually working on a completely electric car.

What’s Going On?

All the recent departures of senior Project Titan team members have a few things in common that more likely point to a new phase for the project rather than any problems brewing beneath the surface.

For one thing, every one of the senior folks who have left has been on the hardware engineering side. These are senior engineers who headed up things like the robotics teams, car safety systems, and powertrains. Schwekutsch’s role was no different in this regard.

Despite being the head of the project, even Doug Field was predominantly a hardware engineer. This wasn’t just true at Tesla, either — before his relatively brief stint there, Field served as Apple’s VP of Hardware Engineering for years.

While Field was responsible for the day-to-day operations of Project Titan, it’s also notable that the senior executive in charge of the project overall was Bob Mansfield, who served as Senior VP of Hardware Engineering until his first retirement in 2012. He was called back personally by Tim Cook to work on “special projects,” which ultimately turned out to be a euphemism for Apple’s automotive ambitions.

Mansfield and Field obviously worked very closely together at Apple for years before the latter left for Tesla. The legendary Apple veteran likely had a hand in bringing the former engineer back into the fold.

Last year, however, Mansfield announced that he was retiring for good, and the entire Apple Car team moved to Apple’s Artificial Intelligence division under Senior VP of Machine Learning and AI Strategy, John Giannandrea.

Even at the time, this shift strongly suggested that the stage of designing and building the actual vehicle powertrain and other hardware systems was all but finalized, as it made little sense otherwise.

After all, it’s not like an Apple veteran like Bob Mansfield would have simply thrown in the towel and decided it was time to retire. However, with his work on Project Titan finished, it was time to hand things off to the appropriate team to begin the next phase — the autonomous self-driving systems.

This is even more obvious in light of recent reports that Apple plans to build a fully self-driving car that may not even have a steering wheel, and some other shifts within Apple support this idea, such as technology VP Kevin Lynch moving over from the Apple Watch team to become the new project manager.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that every one of the recent high-profile departures left for other challenging projects. In most cases, these were promotions, such as CEO and CTO positions, albeit at smaller companies. Their work on Project Titan was most likely finished, and it was time to move on to the next big thing.

By all reports, Apple aims to have its first vehicle ready to show off by 2025. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to buy it right away — it could still take a few more years to get all the necessary regulatory approvals before it’s actually ready to hit the streets.

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