Apple lands former Curiosity Mars rover engineer for self-drive project

Apple lands former Curiosity Mars rover engineer for self-drive project

Apple has continued its process of poaching key staff from its rivals, this time with the hire of a senior self-driving vehicle engineer from Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous transport unit.

Apple has brought Jaime Waydo onboard its own driverless car programme. Formerly a systems engineer at Waymo, where she oversaw the links between human drivers and autonomous systems, Waydo was also a long-serving engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory. 

Indeed, she was part of the team that landed the Curiosity rover on Mars, and now, arguably, has a more difficult task: getting a coherent driverless vehicle strategy on the road for Apple.

While coverage of the driverless car market tends to focus on companies such as Waymo, Uber, Tesla, Baidu, and established automakers such as GM, Apple is a more significant player in the sector than many realise.

In May, Internet of Business reported that Apple had increased its fleet of autonomous test vehicles in California to 55, with 83 registered drivers. That announcement meant that Apple has more autonomous test cars in the state than Waymo (51, at the time of the report), Tesla (39), and recent entrant (14). Only GM Cruise has more.

A year ago, Apple had only three test vehicles in California, but by January this year, had increased that number to 45, suggesting a major and ongoing ramping-up of its Project Titan autonomous programme.

While the programme itself is no secret, Apple’s ambitions in the driverless market are less clear than Waymo’s and Tesla’s, for example. Last year, a report suggested that internal disagreements at Apple had shifted the focus of Project Titan from developing a standalone vehicle to – unusually – developing its ‘CarOS’ to license to other companies.

Along the way, Apple has reportedly explored incorporating augmented reality into the programme, and has even looked at reinventing the wheel, at one point favouring a spherical design, which would allow sideways movement.

Apple: beyond the PAIL?

The world’s most valuable company has also been developing its driverless technology to transport employees from building to building on the Apple campus – the so-called Palo Alto Infinite Loop (PAIL).

In May, we reported that Apple had signed a deal with Volkswagen to make self-driving vehicles. At present, the agreement is believed to centre on Volkswagen’s T6 transporters, which Apple plans to adapt into self-driving shuttles for the PAIL, but it has the potential to expand into a wider collaboration.

That partnership was seen by some commentators as a step down, in brand terms, from Apple’s previous ambition to partner with BMW and Mercedes-Benz to create all-electric, self-driving vehicles.

However, to present a relationship with VW as a mid-market, third-choice deal may be speaking too soon, as the Volkswagen Group – collectively Europe’s largest automaker – includes the Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Bugatti marques: some of the world’s leading performance and supercar brands, all of which share Apple’s integrated, design-centric vision.

AI ambitions

In April, Apple hired John Giannandrea, Google’s former head of search and artificial intelligence, as its new head of machine learning and AI strategy.

That appointment was hugely significant for the world’s most valuable company. Apple has struggled to make headway in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision – despite being in the vanguard of digital assistants with Siri, which predated both Alexa and Google’s Assistant by several years.

The reason for Apple’s struggles in the AI space since then is that its walled-garden, consumer-focused approach has deprived it of AI’s most valuable resource: data.

Internet of Business says

The latest appointment is interesting in the context of Apple’s story: it may be the world’s most valuable company, and now leading the market in wearables, but in many ways Apple’s insular, self-sustaining, integrated model means that it is cut off from the world’s most valuable currency: data, along with a partner and developer ecosystem. Except in peripherals, of course, and its occasional forays into the enterprise alongside IBM, for example.

Despite once being a leader in some spaces, including digital assistants, Apple sometimes appears to be a ‘me too’ player, suggesting that what it gained from Tim Cook’s leadership in operational terms, it lost in terms of ‘the vision thing’ and PR genius when Jobs passed away.