Thousands of engineers put Apple self-driving car in high gear

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Apple car
With so many people working on the Apple self-driving car, it's amazing that the best visuals we have are artists' concept renderings like this one.
Photo: Aristomenis Tsirbas/Freelancer

Apple stays quiet about it, but the company is clearly developing a self-driving car. And this week the world was given a glimpse inside this project, showing that it’s much larger than many had previously thought.

The FBI arrested a former employee on Apple’s autonomous car design team for allegedly downloading proprietary information and attempting take it to a rival car company in China. The resulting documentation reveals the number of employees on the project.

There’s no room for doubt about what Xiaolang Zhang, the former Apple employee, was working on. “ZHANG was hired at Apple starting December 7, 2015, to work on a project to develop software and hardware for use in autonomous vehicles (the Project),” wrote Eric Proudfoot, the FBI Special Agent investigating this crime, in the official criminal complaint (PDF).

“Approximately 5,000 of Apple’s over 135,000 full time employees are disclosed on the Project. Not all employees disclosed on the Project are granted access to the Databases. After receiving disclosure, an employee must also separately request database access, unless they are designated as a ‘core employee’ for the Project. Approximately 2,700 employees have access to one or more of the Databases,” wrote Proudfoot.

Apple self-driving car project speeding along

Information leaking from Apple indicates that CEO Tim Cook approved the self-driving car project in 2014. The company became serious about hiring in 2015, the same year Zhang joined the company. Back then, the number of employees on the team (supposedly dubbed Project Titan) was pegged at about 1,000.

Three years later, we know that approximately 2,700 employees are significantly involved in the Apple self-driving car project. And over 2,000 more have worked on it closely enough to be officially briefed about Project Titan.

It’s not clear what this employee build-up means for rumors from 2016 that Apple isn’t designing a whole car, just a self-driving platform that could be licensed out to other companies. Thousands of employees could be required for either. Tim Cook called autonomous cars “the mother of all AI projects,” in 2017.

A industry analyst estimates that Apple could be sinking huge amounts of cash into this project. “Apple might be spending $500 million to $1 billion of its $12.7 billion R&D spend on autonomous driving alone,” Toni Sacconaghi, a Bernstein analyst, wrote in a note to investors on Friday.