Apple changes gear on autonomous vehicles

An Apple logo hangs above the entrance to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 21, 2015.
An Apple logo hangs above the entrance to the Apple store on 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 21, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO • Apple is rethinking what it plans to do about self- driving cars, just as other big technology firms appear ready to plough ahead with competing efforts.

In a retrenchment of one of its most ambitious initiatives, Apple has shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees, according to three people briefed on the move, speaking anonymously.

The firm has added resources to the project - code-named Titan - over the last two years, but it has struggled to make progress.

In July, the firm brought in Mr Bob Mansfield, a highly regarded Apple veteran, to take over the effort. Under him, the focus changed from an emphasis on designing and producing a car to building the underlying technology. The firm has a number of fully autonomous vehicles in the middle of testing, using limited operating routes in a closed environment, according to the people briefed on the plans.

Apple is not the only big tech company pursuing autonomous driving technology. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has been testing self-driving cars for years, but its focus has been on designing the underlying software and systems to make that technology work. Tesla has a self-driving feature within its cars that has come under scrutiny in recent months after a fatal accident was connected to its use.

And carmakers such as Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler have said they expect to make self-driving vehicles in five years or less.

Last month, ride-sharing operator Uber acquired start-up Otto for about US$700 million (S$953 million), buying with it some experts in robotics and autonomous technology.

But Apple has stood out mainly for its secrecy - never acknowledging that it is working on a car. In fact, Apple started looking seriously into building an electric car about two years ago, poaching experts in battery technology and so-called machine vision, as well as veterans from the car industry.

But the project encountered problems and people working on it struggled to explain what Apple could bring to a self-driving car that other companies could not, according to the people briefed on the project.

Apple employees were told that the layoffs are part of a "reboot" of the car project, the people briefed on it said. Apple has declined to comment.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Apple changes gear on autonomous vehicles'. Print Edition | Subscribe