Ford has confirmed that it has appointed Doug Field as its new chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer. Field’s move to the blue oval sees him leave his former role at Apple as its vice president of special projects, and the leader of its so-called Project Titan automotive project. Ford said that Field’s new position would see him “lead Ford’s efforts to develop the next-gen Blue Oval Intelligence tech stack to deliver smart, connected vehicles and services that improve over time through constant updates”. Field’s departure from Apple’s project is another symbolic disruption for the tech company’s endeavour, which has endured a number of shake ups in its history.
Project Titan began in 2014 when rumours emerged that Apple’s CEO Tim Cook had met with BMW and showed a particular interest in its i3 hatchback EV, leading to widespread speculation that Apple would eventually launch its own branded vehicle. More news followed, adding more fuel to the rumour fire – Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that hundreds of Apple employees had been dedicated to Project Titan. Through 2016, Apple was reported to be in talks with various auto companies including BMW, VW, Daimler and Faraday Future, along with supplier Magna. Further rumour alliances were floated with Nissan and BYD, along with a $2 billion takeover bid for McLaren.
Despite the clear presence of Apple’s activity in the automotive space, little was known about the intended goals of Project Titan. Initial thoughts were that it would lead to an Apple-branded vehicle, likely with a battery-electric powertrain and built either by Apple itself, or by an established automotive constructor partner. However, as the project evolved it appeared to transition toward creating an autonomous driving system that could, in theory, be applied to any vehicle. Leading this impression was the fact that CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg in 2017 Apple was focusing on autonomous systems, with a research paper from Apple developers following in November 2017 regarding pedestrian detection using LiDAR sensors.
In 2018, Field himself was appointed to lead the division after a position at Tesla. This would precede a significant share up of the division, with the news that nearly 200 employees from Project Titan would be laid off in February 2019. A report at the time from Reuters noted that many of the roles lost – product design, ergonomics, machine shop employees – were related to hardware development, potentially indicating that the division would abandon this focus in favour of AV software.
Following the layoffs, Apple acquired Drive.ai – an autonomous vehicle startup in California. While Drive.ai faces significant competition in the form of larger AV developers including Waymo and Cruise, it had successfully demonstrated its selfdriving technology on a number of Nissan NV200 vans. Drive.ai is now Apple’s de facto vehicle division.
Now, however, after just three years’ service, Apple’s car chief has jumped ship to Ford. Commenting to reporters on the hire, Ford’s CEO Jim Farley emphasised how important Field’s new role as chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer was considering that “the entire customer experience of the future goes through the embedded system”. This new role is notable for Field considering it is likely to have a much greater focus on connected vehicle technology rather than autonomous vehicle tech.
Industry commentators generally feel this move is a blow to Apple, whose secretive automotive plans appear to have regularly changed focus and have failed to make a dent in the leads hard won by rival startups, either as a developer of autonomous vehicle brains, or as a full-scale automotive OEM.
It also speaks to the auto industry’s underestimation of how difficult it would ultimately be to create autonomous vehicles. Field is moving from a role focused on the autonomous vehicle megatrend, to a role that revolves around vehicle connectivity. While autonomous vehicle technology clearly has years to go before it’s ready for the mainstream, connectivity is already here and likely to play a larger role in customer expectations for the foreseeable future.
This article was first published on GlobalData’s Automotive Intelligence Center.