Tesla has recruited long-serving Apple technologist Chris Lattner to run its Autopilot self-driving car software, at a time when the iPhone maker is refocusing its own automotive efforts on autonomous systems.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder and chief executive, has set an ambitious target of the end of this year to enable its cars to drive coast-to-coast across the US without any human control. The latest boost towards this goal comes after the death of a Tesla owner while using Autopilot prompted an overhaul of its autonomous systems last year.
Mr Lattner spent more than a decade at Apple, including as head of its developer tools unit for the past five years. The department, which includes more than 100 staffers, has long played a crucial role for Apple in helping people both inside Cupertino and in the wider app developer community to write software for iOS and its Mac computers, as well as newer platforms such as Apple TV and its Watch.
Mr Lattner also pioneered the creation of Swift, a new programming language for iOS that was announced in 2014 to help make it easier to create iPhone and iPad apps.
Tesla said that Mr Lattner’s move would “accelerate the future of autonomous driving”. “Chris’ reputation for engineering excellence is well known,” Tesla said in a statement on Tuesday.
The hire has been seen as Tesla’s highest-profile recruit from Apple since the electric-car maker poached Doug Field, former head of Mac hardware engineering, in 2013 to run its vehicle programmes. Mr Field, is now Tesla’s senior vice-president of engineering.
Until now, Autopilot has been led by Jinnah Hosein, who was serving a “dual role” as SpaceX’s vice-president of software. Mr Hosein will now return to full-time duties at SpaceX, the rocket maker that is also led by Mr Musk.
While Mr Lattner has no known association with Apple’s secretive project to develop a car, which is code-named Project Titan, his defection to Tesla comes as the two companies are increasingly on a collision course over autonomous driving systems and the fight for talent in that area.
Last year, more than two years into its foray into the car industry, Apple changed the leadership and strategy of Project Titan to prioritise development of the underlying systems that would power a self-driving car, people familiar with the matter have said.
The changes, under the new leadership of veteran Apple executive Bob Mansfield, saw the departure of dozens of people working on the car team. Some were redeployed to other Apple projects while others, including several with a background in traditional vehicle engineering, left the company.
Mr Musk once sought to diminish Apple’s car efforts by referring to the team as the “Tesla graveyard” but traffic between the two companies has not been only in one direction. Chris Porritt, a former Aston Martin vehicle engineer, left Tesla to join Apple last year.
It is not clear whether Mr Lattner was given the opportunity to join Apple’s own automotive team but his decision to join Tesla instead will nonetheless come as a blow to the iPhone maker as it tries to regain momentum. Apple’s revenues fell below its own internal targets last year, causing several Apple executives to miss out on performance-related bonuses for the first time in more than a decade. With the release of any car seen as being several years away, other new Apple products including its Watch and TV box have so far failed to compensate for the decline in iPhone sales.
Anil Dash, a New York-based technology entrepreneur and adviser, said the exit of Mr Lattner, who he described as “one of the great technical architects” was a “surprising” and serious loss for the iPhone maker. “Hard to not see Lattner’s departure as representing an inflection point for Apple,” he said in a tweet.
In an email to a Swift mailing list on Tuesday, Mr Lattner said his decision to “pursue an opportunity in another space . . . wasn’t made lightly”. Unusually for Apple, Swift is an open-source project, a shared-ownership structure which Mr Lattner said “has enabled Apple and the amazingly vibrant Swift community to work together to evolve Swift into a powerful, mature language powering software used by hundreds of millions of people”.
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