Apple’s autonomous car skunkworks endeavor, Project Titan, has spent years as one of the company’s most volatile divisions, going through almost as many leadership and employee changes as the company’s Siri team. Now Titan is dealing with another staffing shakeup: Apple confirmed today that 200 employees were dismissed from the project, with some moving to “other initiatives” within the company, including machine learning.
The company’s confirmation came after CNBC sources disclosed the dismissals, which were explained as internally expected, following Apple’s August 2018 hiring of former Tesla engineering VP Doug Field to lead Project Titan, along with long-time Apple “special projects” SVP Bob Mansfield. Apple has previously staffed Titan up and down, including a major round of layoffs in 2016, but reportedly maintains both a surprisingly large team and secretive database of automotive technologies.
While Apple has offered precious little explanation for the multi-year endeavor, leaks have suggested that the company originally planned to release a revolutionary self-driving car but subsequently refocused the project on narrower systems and components for autonomous vehicles. Apple has only publicly acknowledged the latter aspect of its plans and maintained the same level of disclosure in a statement confirming the dismissals today:
We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. 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. We continue to believe 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.
Machine learning has become a more prominent topic at Apple over the past several years, as the company developed and debuted the Core ML machine learning framework for iOS and launched a public machine learning journal to share some of its findings. Though most of its public-facing work in the space involves Siri, text, photo, or facial recognition technologies, Project Titan could make a much bigger splash — assuming its innovations ever make it into an actual Apple product.
Thus far, the company has been testing a growing fleet of autonomous vehicles using its technologies, as well as building employee shuttles with self-driving capabilities. Extensive real-world testing is an obvious prerequisite for releasing any vehicular technology, but a particular challenge for Apple, which has a legendary obsession with secrecy ahead of new product launches.