Apple Hires Former Tesla & NASA Staffers in Driverless Car Push

The secret team was accidentally revealed in a DMV paperwork error.

Steve Jobs must be rolling over in his grave over this latest security slip. Fresh off the report last week that Apple had finally joined the party and received a permit to test self-driving cars on California roads, documents obtained by both Business Insider and The Wall Street Journal reveal a veritable A-Team of autonomous pros including veterans of Tesla and NASA working in secret to get the company’s “Project Titan” off the ground. The names of those individuals, all listed as “driver/operators” in the self-driving permit paperwork, were supposed to be redacted before the documents were released through public records requests.

It’s been a whipsaw year for Apple’s fledgling autonomous car project. It was officially launched back in 2014, but by last September The New York Times reported that the company was “rethinking” their strategy and laid off or reassigned hundreds of employees working on Project Titan as they scaled back their ambitions to build a car from scratch. Senior executives gave the division until late 2017 to figure out the “feasibility” of the whole enterprise, and since then there’s been more speculation about the next iPhone than the once-celebrated Apple car. Meanwhile, the very visible efforts of companies like Uber, Tesla, Waymo, and a host of other startups have dominated the headlines and captured the public’s attention, for better or for worse.

But as that internal deadline approaches, it looks like the team at Apple is going back to basics and redoubling their efforts to prove the project’s viability. Last Friday, Business Insider and The Wall Street Journal obtained documents from the California DMV that confirmed the company received a permit to test their technology on public roads. Buried in that paperwork was a list of six individuals described as “driver/operators,” but a little internet sleuthing revealed these are no ordinary testers—three are former engineers with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one used to work for Tesla, and the other two are highly accomplished PhD’s with extensive robotic experience. Several of them had no public connection to Apple prior to this report.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the involvement of such high-level people in what’s billed as everyday testing indicates the project is still in a relatively early stage, but sources told Business Insider that Apple’s head of artificial intelligence has assembled a larger crack team of researchers and engineers with a “mandate” to focus exclusively on self-driving technology. And if it’s true that the company has mostly abandoned plans to build its own model, the pace of their technological development is likely to increase.

But don’t expect to a car decked out with Apple logos anytime soon; as CEO Tim Cook said last February, “It’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.”