Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Apple’s secret car project loses another CEO

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Christopher “CJ” Moore, the former Tesla Autopilot software engineer who left last year to join Apple’s secret car project, has left Apple to join Luminar, a lidar company in Orlando, Florida, as it new head of software, the company announced. Moore only lasted seven months at Apple.

Moore is among a group of top executives from other leading companies to join Luminar, which makes the laser sensors that help autonomous vehicles “see” their environment. But his departure from Apple is yet another indication of the tech giant’s struggle to retain talent for its muddled efforts to create an autonomous electric car – known as Project Titan.

“We attract the world’s best leaders in their fields to execute on our vision and make the future of transportation a reality,” said Austin Russell, CEO of Luminar in a statement. An Apple spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The departure is the latest shake-up for Apple’s auto division, which has seen countless changes in recent years. Last year, project head Doug Field left Apple to join Ford, where he later took charge of digital systems at the automaker’s newly founded Model E division for electric and autonomous vehicles. Kevin Lynch, who led Apple’s Watch division after serving as CTO of Adobe, was brought in to replace Field.

A few weeks later, in November 2021, Moore joined Apple to develop self-driving software Stuart Bowers, another Tesla expatwho was previously the vice president of engineering.

Although the project started in 2014, work on an autonomous electric vehicle is still in its infancy. Earlier, Apple had said it only planned to develop self-driving software that would be used by other automakers — which in itself was a change from trying to build a car.

Last year, Bloomberg reported that Apple had completed “much of the core work” on a new processor intended to power the invisible electric autonomous vehicle. The company has reportedly accelerated its timeline for the autonomous car it is developing, with a new goal of launching it in just four years. The goal for Project Titan now is, after multiple pivots, to create an autonomous car that does not have a steering wheel.

Moore is an interesting fact for Luminar. During his time at Tesla, he opposed Elon Musk’s claims about the company’s autonomous vehicle efforts, according to a memo from a telephone conversation with California Department of Motor Vehicles officials. “Elon’s tweet does not match the technical reality per CJ,” the memo read. “Tesla is currently at level 2.”

Russell, the young CEO of Luminar, has also raised doubts about Musk’s claims to autonomy. In an interview with The edge last year, Russell called Tesla’s advanced driver assistance systems “best in class,” but argued that the company “dug itself in a really deep hole” by mistakenly calling its latest version of Autopilot “Full Self-Driving.” Russell also calls himself the “chief skeptic of autonomous industry.”

Notably, Luminar is rumored to be partnering with Tesla, despite Musk’s vocal derision of lidar as a “crutch” and a “silly message.” Last year, a Tesla Model Y was photographed in Florida with one of Luminar’s lidar sensors on the roof.

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