After five years of working at Tesla, Apple’s former VP of Mac hardware engineering, Doug Field, has returned to Cupertino — but apparently to work on Apple’s autonomous car initiative Project Titan.
Apple has officially acknowledged rehiring Field, but his specific involvement with Titan was confirmed to Daring Fireball by unnamed sources within the company. According to the report, Field is working alongside Bob Mansfield, a senior hardware engineering VP who briefly “retired” from Apple in 2012 yet remained involved in unnamed special projects for the company, including Titan.
Titan has been an unusually open secret for years. Reports have claimed that Apple has flip-flopped between advancing and scaling back the project, at one point working to develop an entire next-generation vehicle before deciding to focus more narrowly on specific autonomous systems. Company executives have winked in the project’s general direction, at one point describing cars as the ultimate mobile device, as if they represented a clear next step after Apple‘s successes with smartphones and tablets.
Field’s return to Apple comes amidst significant vehicle-related employee turbulence at both Apple and Tesla. Both companies have hired and lost numerous automotive experts in recent years, with Apple reportedly laying off hundreds of people during its 2016-2017 scaling back of car development plans. Tesla has experienced numerous departures related to the troubled launch of its entry-level Model 3.
During his prior five years at Apple, Field led hardware development for the redesigned iMac, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro. He left Apple in October 2013 to lead the development of new vehicles for Tesla and headed up production for the Model 3 before departing to re-join Apple. In a statement announcing his hiring at Tesla, Field said he had started his career “with the goal of creating incredible cars” and had finally found an opportunity to build “the best cars in the world.”
It looks like he may continue on that path with his old employer. Without explanation, Apple has requested DMV permission to operate a collection of at least 66 self-driving vehicles, which is now amongst the three largest such fleets in California. At least some of the cars are Lexus RX 450h SUVs equipped with exterior sensor arrays.
But despite occasional vehicular patent filings, it’s unclear whether Apple’s ambitions continue to involve the creation of a full car. One year ago, the company unveiled a self-driving shuttle service called PAIL (Palo Alto to Infinite Loop), using the technology to transport employees between its campuses. PAIL and a rare 2017 comment from Apple CEO Tim Cook regarding the company’s interest in autonomous systems are the most public elements of the company’s continued automotive efforts.
Titan had an odd moment in the spotlight last month when a former Apple employee was arrested by the FBI as he attempted to leave the country. The employee allegedly copied Titan-related documents from secret Apple servers before starting work at a Chinese autonomous vehicle startup. According to court documents, around 5,000 people had access to the Titan database, a huge number for a secret project at a company that enforces “need to know” access restrictions on information.