Apple Permit Reveals Self-Driving Car Testers With NASA Experience

By Tripp Mickle and Tim Higgins Features Dow Jones Newswires

Apple Inc.'s plan for autonomous vehicles calls for putting more-senior engineers in all of its cars than some of its rivals are using for road tests, a move that suggests the company is still in the early phases of testing its technology, analysts say.

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In a permit issued April 14 by the state of California, obtained Friday through a public-records request, Apple identifies six employees, including roboticists who worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who will be in the front seat of three Lexus sport-utility vehicles outfitted with technology to make them autonomous.

The road tests are critical for Apple as it tries to catch up in the race to develop self-driving cars. Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo has been testing autonomous vehicles on roads since 2009, with senior engineers in the front seat for many early tests.

At stake is a reshuffling of the auto industry and the $2 trillion in annual revenue tied to it, according to estimates by Deloitte. Traditional auto makers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., as well as Silicon Valley companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Tesla Inc., are investing heavily in self-driving technology.

Though Apple has been working since at least 2014 on self-driving cars -- an effort dubbed Project Titan -- it has been guarded publicly about people working on the project.

Shilpa Gulati, the first person named on the Apple permit, has been in the field since at least 2009, when she was part of a team working in Antarctica on a NASA-funded project to develop an autonomous vehicle to explore one of Jupiter's moons.

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She later worked on self-driving cars at Robert Bosch GmbH, a German technology and auto-parts supplier. According to her LinkedIn page, she is a manager working on special projects at a "Silicon Valley company," where she built a team of about 30 researchers and engineers.

The permit also names three engineers who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Paul Hebert, who has designed a robot that could unlock a door; Jeremy Ma, who focused on algorithms for detecting three-dimensional objects; and Victor Hwang, who has worked on motion-planning algorithms for robots, according to their LinkedIn pages, which list them as working at Apple.

Rivals such as Waymo and Uber have more vehicles on the road than Apple. Waymo, for example, mainly relies on technicians for testing, industry watchers say. For Apple, keeping engineers close to the technology could allow them to make quicker improvements, said Jeremy Carlson, an automotive analyst with research firm IHS Markit.

Apple declined to comment on its autonomous-driving plans or employees named in the document. The drivers named in the permit didn't reply to requests for comment.

The employees named in the permit are among an estimated 1,000 people working on Project Titan, according to people familiar with the effort. Their experience in robotics and camera vision from their work on space programs would be valuable to a self-driving program. Ms. Gulati, for example, has researched making autonomous wheelchairs move more gracefully, work that would be applicable in a car program.

"The fundamental problems of controlling a wheelchair overlap a great deal with the fundamental problems of controlling a car," said Benjamin Kuipers, the University of Michigan professor who oversaw Ms. Gulati's wheelchair research when she was a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas.

Hiring experts with self-driving car experience has become fiercely competitive and expensive in recent years. Sebastian Thrun, the so-called godfather of Google's self-driving car project, created a stir last fall when he told Recode that experienced autonomous-vehicle researchers were valued at $10 million each, based on GM's acquisition of Cruise Automation Inc., which had about 40 employees, and Uber's acquisition of Ottomotto LLC, which had about 70 employees.

Ms. Gulati brought to Apple her experience in robotics and time spent at a key automotive supplier. A graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, she went from working on the NASA-funded Jupiter project to joining a Bosch team that developed algorithms for a car that could drive on highways, her personal website says.

In a 2013 Bosch marketing video, she is featured riding in a BMW car retrofitted with sensors and computers to make it drive autonomously.

Apple listed Bosch for the first time as one of its top 200 suppliers in 2016 and included an address for a Bosch facility focused on automotive electronics and mobility solutions.

The permit also includes a 10-page training plan for test drivers, outlining moments when they might need to take control of a vehicle on the road. Each driver is given two practice runs and three trials to pass tests such as responding to a vehicle's rapid acceleration by tapping the brakes.

Write to Tripp Mickle at Tripp.Mickle@wsj.com and Tim Higgins at Tim.Higgins@WSJ.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 24, 2017 10:20 ET (14:20 GMT)