Tech Transformers

Apple has reportedly hired ex-NASA and Tesla staffers to boost its self-driving car effort

Key Points
  • Documents from the California Department of Motor Vehicles reveal Apple has hired ex-NASA and Tesla employees for its driverless car push.
  • It's unclear what stage of testing Apple is at with its autonomous car program codenamed "Project Titan".
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.
Getty Images

Apple has hired former NASA employees, robotics experts and ex-Tesla staffers to form part of its driverless car teams, according to official documents released to two media outlets.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal and Business Insider obtained a permit that was issued to Apple by Californian authorities on March 14 which granted the tech giant permission to test autonomous vehicles. The permit contained names of six Apple employees that are designated as "driver/operators" of the driverless cars.

The names were supposed to be redacted, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Business Insider said, but both it and the WSJ published the names on Monday.

Searches online revealed that these current Apple employees have had previous experience at space agency NASA, electric car firm Tesla and in the robotics industry, something that Apple is hoping will boost its efforts in the driverless vehicle space.

Apple has been tight-lipped on its driverless car efforts. At one point there were reports that the project had been scaled back. But recent developments show the U.S. firm is still focusing on the technology as it looks to challenge existing auto makers, as well as rival technology companies like Google who has its own autonomous vehicle program via its spin-off company Waymo.

Firstly, Apple's name was added to a list of companies that have secured a permit to test self-driving cars in California. And the permit shows Apple's key hires.

One person on the list is Shilpa Gulati whose LinkedIn profile describes her as an "experienced roboticist" who is working on "special projects at a Silicon Valley company". Apple is not named on her LinkedIn page. In the job description for this role, Gulati describes how she built an organization of "30 world class researchers and engineers" and has been working on this since March 2015.

Gulati's previous jobs include being a senior research engineer at Bosch where she developed "motion planning algorithms for self-driving cars" and a NASA-backed project to create a vehicle to be deployed on one of Jupiter's moons.

Another staffer called Jeremy Ma is a software engineer at Apple's special projects group and has been working there since March 2015. Prior to that, Ma was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Victor Hwang and Paul Herbert, two more named on the DMV permit, were also both ex-NASA employees. Another name on the list is Christopher Gadda, an ex-Tesla staffer.

Apple is one step closer to self-driving cars
Apple is one step closer to self-driving cars

The documents from the California DMV show Apple's plans to train drivers to sit in autonomous cars and be ready to take control of the vehicle if required. Each driver will take a test to show they are able to do this. Apple will be testing its driverless car's ability to do low and high speed driving, a tight U-turn, and sudden steering, acceleration and braking.

It's likely that Apple is in the early stage of testing its cars given that the company hasn't spoken much about it publicly. An Apple spokesperson was not available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Apple's hires will be key in boosting its efforts in the self-driving car space amid stiff competition and could help it catch up with rivals that appear further ahead in development. It's unclear whether Apple is developing both the hardware and software for driverless cars, or just an operating system that other automakers could use.

The Cupertino-based titan has never publicly confirmed work on a self-driving car but a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the clearest indication of its interest in the area.

"The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation," Steve Kenner, Apple's director of product integrity, wrote in the letter in December.