Once upon a time, consumers and investors had high hopes that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) might one day launch an autonomous electric car. Reports regarding the secretive initiative, dubbed Project Titan, first surfaced in 2015, and at that time, Apple was reportedly hoping to launch an electric vehicle in 2019. Well, 2019 is here, but the fate of Project Titan is as murky as ever.
In 2016, Apple laid off hundreds of employees within Project Titan, as longtime hardware exec Bob Mansfield (who is leading the project) chose to focus on developing autonomous driving technology instead of exploring the manufacturing side. Test vehicles have been spotted over the years, and CEO Tim Cook publicly confirmed in 2017 that Apple was "focusing on autonomous systems." After spending five years at Tesla, engineering exec Doug Field returned to Apple in 2018 to join Project Titan.
Now, CNBC reports that Apple just laid off 200 more employees working on Project Titan.
Autonomous driving is "the most ambitious machine learning project ever"
Project Titan had reportedly grown to around 1,000 workers at one point, but it's unclear how many employees Apple still has dedicated to developing the autonomous systems. The layoffs are related to Field's return to Apple, as Field and Mansfield are now leading Project Titan together and some restructuring was in order, according to the report. Some employees were affected but able to transition to other parts of the company.
Apple confirmed the layoffs to CNBC, reiterating its belief that "there is a huge opportunity with autonomous systems," and that the initiative is "the most ambitious machine learning project ever." That largely echoes Cook, who once referred to autonomous driving technology as "the mother of all AI projects."
Apple is still actively testing
It's worth noting that Apple is still pushing forward with development, despite the reduction in force. The tech titan still has test vehicles on the road, one of which was involved in a collision as recently as October, when the test vehicle was side-swiped by a Toyota Camry while in manual mode. That followed a separate collision from August when a test vehicle was rear-ended by a Nissan Leaf while trying to merge onto an expressway. The Apple test vehicle was driving in autonomous mode in the latter incident.
Companies testing autonomous vehicles on public roads in California are required to file reports detailing both collisions and disengagements (when a safety driver has to disengage the autonomous system and take control) with the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. The state has received 129 collision reports since 2014, and Apple has only reported the two collisions mentioned above.
What comes next?
The biggest mystery remains what Apple intends to do with the autonomous technology it is developing. Licensing the technology without designing the underlying hardware is decidedly un-Apple-like, as is building a modular array of sensors that could be retrofitted or mounted on a third-party vehicle.
It seems that the only thing the company knows for sure is that autonomous driving systems will be incredibly important in the future, and will require many years of development and billions of dollars of investment in research and development. Apple is still moving forward, even if there's some turbulence along the way.
Evan Niu, CFA, owns shares of Apple and TSLA. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and TSLA. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.