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Autonomous

Startup Zoox Recruits 17 Apple Auto Engineers – Report

by Sam Chase
On August 22, Apple fans everywhere released deep sighs of disappointment when The New York Times reported that the company had abandoned its ambitions to build a self-driving car -- although the company is reportedly continuing to develop autonomous systems that may be applicable to AVs.

Making the news all the more hard to swallow were all the juicy tidbits, such as using augmented reality to superimpose graphics onto the road through the car's windshield, as well as what "Titan" -- Apple's codename for its AV project -- could have been.

Additionally, Apple had brought on many talented engineers and designers to work on driverless cars, and the Times piece begged the question: What would these people do next?

For some of them, the answer is becoming clear.

A Bloomberg report finds that 17 automotive engineers who once worked for Apple have moved on to work at self-driving car startup Zoox.

The engineers specialize in physical components of cars like suspension systems and braking that occur in both AVs and human-driven cars. With Apple having abandoned its goals of building an iCar, these employees likely had little reason to stick around in Cupertino, according to the report.

While Zoox is nominally a startup, it's far from a small-time operation. It raised $200 million in a 2016 round of fundraising, and was valued at over $1.5 billion dollars that same year. It is perhaps most notable, however, for the secrecy it imposes on its own operations. The only people who truly know what Zoox is working on are Zoox executives and employees. At IEEE Spectrum, journalist Mark Harris has dedicated a substantial amount of time getting the scoop on the company.

"I first investigated this stealthy startup for IEEE Spectrum in 2015, revealing its ambition to develop a fully automated robotaxi from the ground up," Harris wrote this March. "Two years later, Zoox is valued at US $1.55 billion, employs over 200 people, and has more than 50 PhDs and postdocs in computer vision, artificial intelligence, and automotive design -- many previously employed at Tesla. It remains one of the lowest profile companies in the Valley, shunning press coverage and sharing nothing more than a stylized infinity logo on its website."

Months later, Harris' reporting remains our best account of the goings on at Zoox. The company is aiming to develop a vehicle with Level 5 autonomy, according to his report. Its first prototype is an all-electric car, and patents filed by the company reveal a design in which all four passenger seats face inwards, presumably eliminating any possibility of a human driving in Zoox's vehicles.

With the level of enthusiasm that surrounds anything and everything Apple, this series of hires may be the most attention that Zoox has received by the media. Considering how secretive the company has shown itself to be, they're probably not all that happy about the press. Sooner or later, though, Zoox was going to have to engage in some level of publicity around its operations. The hires just made that day come a little sooner.

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