A secret team of
NASA veterans and robotics experts recruited by Apple to lead its self-driving car project has had its cover blown by what appears to be a simple bureaucratic snafu.
An Apple filing obtained by Business Insider on Friday through a public records request contained the names of six individuals that Apple names as the official “driver/operators” of these driverless vehicles.
The filing with the California Department of Motor Vehicles provided the first public details about Apple’s efforts testing self-driving cars, including brief descriptions of the car’s “automated system” and a walk-through of the training program for test vehicle operators.
The list of names in the filing made it clear that, over the last several years, Apple has been staffing up with experts holding PhDs in robotics and other related areas to advance its self-driving car efforts.
But that list was apparently not supposed to be public.
A spokesperson for the California DMV told Business Insider that these names were intended to be redacted from the document and asked that they not be published.
Indeed, several of the individuals listed had no known public association with Apple, and no indication of their ties to Apple cited in their professional profiles on LinkedIn.
Growing the ranks
Apple has long sought to maintain a tight level of secrecy around the products under development in its labs and has never publicly acknowledged that it is working on self-driving car. Apple obtained permits to test self-driving cars on California roads earlier this month, joining a crowded field of competitors including Google, Uber and Tesla.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the fact that Apple is enlisting these senior-level engineers and PhDs to operate their cars could indicate that the program is still in its early stages. Historically, self-driving car programs like Google spin-out Waymo’s only involve senior staff in day-to-day testing until the software is considered stable enough that others can take over.
Furthermore, Business Insider hears from one industry insider that these PhDs are actually under the command of well-regarded professor Ruslan Salakhutdinov, the company’s first-ever Director of Artificial Intelligence, who joined the company in October 2016.
While it’s generally assumed that Salakhutdinov was hired to do research into making Apple’s software and services smarter overall, Business Insider is hearing that he’s hiring a team of researchers that will be about 20 engineers when all is said and done, with a mandate to work almost entirely on self-driving car technology.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this story at the time of publication.
However, this tracks with Salakhutdinov’s few public appearances since taking the role: In late 2016, a presentation given by Apple’s AI team listed LIDAR, a crucial self-driving car technology, as an area of focus. And at a recent MIT Technology Review conference, Salakhutdinov’s spoke at length about the importance of memory to navigation
Meet the team
In the filing, Apple names one Shilpa Gulati as one of its “autonomous vehicle driver/operators.” On her LinkedIn profile, Gulati, who received her PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, says she has been employed as a manager of special projects at a “Silicon Valley company” since 2015.
In that role, she writes, “she developed the vision and built an organisation of ~30 world class researchers and engineers.” It’s not clear if Gulati is referring to the same research team now led by Salakhutdinov. In 2009, Gulari worked on a NASA-backed project to design a self-driving underwater vehicle that could potentially explore moons like Jupiter’s watery Europa.
The permit also names former Tesla engineer and Stanford PhD Christopher David Gadda, former NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory robotics engineer Paul Hebert PhD, and control systems PhD David Rosas, none of whom list an association with Apple on their public-facing online presences.
Finally, Apple engineers Victor Hwang and Jeremy Ma, both also formerly robotics engineers with NASA JPL, are listed in the filing.
The bigger picture
Apple’s work in the automotive world is an open secret in the industry, but the company remains tight-lipped about its progress.
“It’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in February 2016, indicating that the company wasn’t yet ready to divulge its plans.
Apple has what appears to be a mostly separate organisation of 1,000 employees working on what it calls “Project Titan” in Sunnyvale, California and other satellite offices. When the project was first revealed in 2015, Apple was planning to build an electric car, with self-driving planned as a later feature.
Last year, the project hit some snags, though, and Apple was forced to bring on Bob Mansfield, a respected engineer, to cut back the scope of the project and set new goals, according to reporting from Bloomberg. Apple is believed be be primarily working on autonomous software, instead of a full electric car, but the project is still shrouded in secrecy.
Apple is expected to assess the progress it has made on self-driving cars at the end of this year, according to Bloomberg.
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