On Tuesday, Apple announced plans to acquire struggling Mountain View, California-based autonomous vehicles startup Drive.ai. Financial details of the sale have not been disclosed. However, the purchase did come at a fortuitous time for the self-driving car company.
Right before the Apple deal was declared, the firm notified state regulators it was planning to lay off its 90 employees and shut down.
Drive.ai Before Acquisition
Founded in 2015, Drive.ai was once one of the autonomous vehicle sector’s most promising new firms. Started by former Stanford University machine learning researchers, the company received $77 million in outside funding. Furthermore, in its last year, the startup seemed poised to make a significant breakthrough.
In 2018, Drive.ai attracted attention by testing its autonomous vehicles without drivers in Frisco, Texas. However, the company did have remote operators standing by to take control of its artificial intelligence enabled Nissan NV200s if they faltered. That seemingly never became an issue as the startup posted videos of its vans changing lanes and passing pedestrians with ease.
As such, the company’s technology seemed well ahead of the rest of the industry. In May, Consumer Reports published an exposé stating Tesla’s Autopilot put drivers at risk when it completed automated lane changes. Similarly, Alphabet subsidiary Waymo is offering autonomous taxi service in Arizona in partnership with rideshare company Lyft. However, the corporation’s vehicles only have authorization to be on the road with human operators at the helm.
Currently, the circumstances surrounding Drive.ai’s transition from groundbreaking startup to nearly defunct company are unknown.
Apple’s Project Titan
Apple’s foray into the competitive autonomous vehicle sector has mostly gone undocumented, but the details that have emerged aren’t inspiring. The tech giant reportedly launched Project Titan in 2014 by tasking hundreds of its employees to making an autonomous minivan. In 2015, reports emerged that the iPhone maker was seeking to force Tesla to launch its self-driving vehicle by 2020.
However, despite Apple’s lofty goals, the initiative encountered problems, and the division was downsized. Addressing the lack of progress, the firm convinced then-retired iMac engineer Bob Mansfield to return to supervise the project. In 2017, the company shifted focus from developing an autonomous vehicle to creating a self-driving software solution.
The following year, Apple seemed to make significant progress in its efforts to crack the autonomous vehicle conundrum. The company registered more than two dozen self-driving cars with the California authorities and teamed with Volkswagen to create a driverless employee shuttle. However, the firm suffered a setback when one employee tried to smuggle its development data to China in July 2018. Ever resilient, Apple hired the former Tesla chief vehicle engineer to work on Project Titan one month later.
Before its Drive.ai purchase, the only information emerging about Apples autonomous vehicle program this year was a mass layoff. In January, the corporation dismissed 200 of Project Titan’s 5,000+ staffers.
Only time will tell if Apple’s newly acquired engineers, programs, and hardware will help its long-running autonomous vehicle initiative bear fruit.