Has Tesla upset the Apple car(t)?

Motor manufacturer takes a bite out of technology giant’s talent pool

Tesla Motors have picked a significant successor to head up their Autopilot self-driving software development, in former Apple engineer Chris Lattner.

Lattner replaces Jinnah Hosein, who as SpaceX’s vice-president of software, can now return there full-time to concentrate on the programming of the Falcon and Dragon spacecraft.

But, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that the new appointment throws a huge potential spanner in Apple’s plans to launch their own autonomous automobile. Having been spoken about in hushed rumours for some time, either as the rather predictably named ‘iCar’, or the slightly more impressive sounding ‘Project Titan’, it now looks like this particular launch could be some way off, and that’s if it happens at all.

Allegedly scheduled for a 2020 debut, Apple’s reported talks with electric car charging station manufacturers, (bringing a whole new meaning to lightning port in the process), only helped pour more fuel on the fire. And the company is already heavily invested in in-car technology, with their CarPlay software and ecosystem being adopted by ever more vehicle and infotainment system manufacturers. Applying for a patent that showed how an iPhone might be used to operate a vehicle, at least in part, was another less than subtle hint.

Then, in September 2016, the New York Times reported Apple had sacked “dozens” of employees working on the project. The suggestion was that focus had shifted from building an actual car to developing the underlying technology that would eventually make one possible. Bloomberg followed up in October 2016 with a report that suggested Apple had “drastically scaled back its automotive ambitions”. This resulted in new rumours that the car was unlikely to ever see the light of day, and with Lattner’s hiring, things are perhaps not looking great.

Lattner was with Apple for eleven years, and was responsible for creating the programming language Swift, used to build apps on Apple platforms. His contribution to incredibly influential commercial products and research projects should not be underestimated, and Tesla’s gain is without a doubt Apple’s loss.

But, this has all happened before. In October 2015, it was Apple hiring Tesla engineers that was in the news. Musk went as far as making the dismissive statement, “They have hired people we’ve fired. We always jokingly call Apple the ‘Tesla graveyard’. If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple, I’m not kidding.” Although he later backtracked on the comments on Twitter, maybe it’s a case of what goes around comes around.

And it doesn’t look like Apple has given up quite yet. In December 2016, the company wrote to America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, stating “how excited about the potential of automated transportation” they were. The five- page open-letter from Apple’s Director of Product Integrity, Steve Kenner, goes as far as asking that new entrants to the industry are treated equally to long-term, established car makers. Specifically, being able to test on public roads without having to seek legal exemptions as would currently be the case.

So, maybe the road ahead does indeed still hold a spot for an Apple car. The only question is, will it now be on a collision course with a Tesla equivalent developed by one of their former engineers? Maybe that’s not one to put to Siri just yet though.

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Author: Luke Phillips (42 Articles)