It’s been such a crazy year already for new Apple product and service announcements that it’s easy to forget that there are also some very cool longer-term projects that Apple is still working on behind the scenes, perhaps the most prominent of which is of course the Apple Car.
Naturally there’s very little official information from Apple — and probably won’t be for a couple of years yet — but every so often a new tidbit leaks out to give us an idea of where Apple is at in the process, and this week The Information reported by Apple is making another acquisition in this area — the self-driving startup Drive.ai.
The California-based startup was founded in 2015 by a group of students at Stanford University, and it got as far as pilot testing a series of autonomous shuttles in two Texas cities late last year, Frisco and Arlington, which ran along fixed routes to and from major public venues such as stadiums. However, several reports have suggested that the small company has been strapped for cash as of late and has been shopping around for a buyer since February.
According to anonymous sources speaking to The Information, Apple is looking to buy Drive.ai as an “acqui-hire” — a move to add the firm’s engineering talent to its own pool. Apple is said to be less concerned about Drive.ai’s actual technology than it is about its employees, which includes a roster of around 100 engineers, “dozens” of which could end up working for Apple, according to sources. Of course Apple itself hasn’t confirmed the plan, simply telling The Information that “We don’t comment on speculation.”
Apple’s Car Team Has Been in Flux
Interestingly, Apple laid off 190 personnel from its self-driving car project in April, 124 of which were engineers in various capacities. While some feared that the layoffs spelled bad news for Apple’s secretive autonomous vehicle project, an Apple spokesperson made it clear that this was not the case, indicating that the move was simply Apple refocusing its efforts and reassigning groups elsewhere in support of initiatives like machine learning.
This was also very likely part of a larger reorganization within Apple — following last year’s hiring of AI titan John Giannandrea, Apple quickly promoted him to Senior VP of an entirely new machine learning division, and it seems likely that Apple has placed all of its AI and machine learning initiatives under Giannandrea’s leadership, regardless of the specific areas where the technology will be applied. Due to the cutting-edge nature of artificial intelligence research, it makes a lot of sense for Apple to consolidate all of its AI researchers into a single group where they can more effectively collaborate and share ideas, especially in Apple’s traditional culture of secrecy, where they’d otherwise be siloed off into more covert areas.
It’s Going to Be a Real Car
Following that round of layoffs and transfers, however, Apple also made a prominent hire of Dr. Michael Schwekutsch, former VP of engineering from Tesla, and a driving force behind electric powertrain technology. This move quashed any prior rumours that Apple was merely working on autonomous driving technology for other manufacturers, basically confirming that its ambitions are in fact to build an actual, physical electric vehicle.
Reports that Apple is drawing in more engineering talent from Drive.ai just adds more fuel to reports that the company is increasing its efforts in this area, and while it’s possible that the move is an opportunistic one — Drive.ai has put itself on the market, and likely at a bargain price — it also reinforces the idea that any previous layoffs from the project were purely a strategic move, and not any indication that the project is struggling.
Although Apple struggled early on with its vehicle ambitions, from all of the recent reports, it looks like Apple’s Car project is finally on solid ground, and it’s likely now just a matter of Apple continuing to drive the underlying technology forward. Building a high-tech car is no simple matter, of course, and Apple has a long road ahead of it — by most reports we’re not going to see anything solid for another 4–6 years — but Apple is clearly very serious about its ambitions, and if any company has the resources, capabilities, and vision to pull a project like this off, it’s Apple.