Apple Hires Top Waymo Engineer to Boost Self-Driving Car Efforts

Apple hasn’t shown off its own autonomous vehicles or said much about its automotive plans, but a recent hire suggests it’s still serious about hitting the road.

The company recently brought on Jaime Waydo, who was a top systems engineer at Waymo, according to news reports. The move was first reported by The Information (paywall) on Friday, June 15.

Waydo played a major role at Waymo, the Google affiliate that appears to be leading the race toward commercial deployment of fully self-driving cars. She joined Google’s self-driving team in 2013, according to her LinkedIn profile, and helped to develop the pod-like AVs that the group, Waymo’s predecessor, built from scratch and put on the road in Mountain View and other cities. Previously, she worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 13 years on projects including the Mars Curiosity rover mission.

Apple has a permit from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to test AVs on public roads, and it has a fleet of 62 vehicles so far, according to documents the agency shared with The Connected Car. That puts it in third place behind GM Cruise, with 112, and Waymo, with 66. It’s also in third place for number of approved drivers for those vehicles, currently at 97, though Cruise and Waymo have far more drivers — 483 and 393, respectively.

Apple doesn’t talk about its AV efforts the way other big players do, but a rare comment on the subject by CEO Tim Cook last June showed the company is serious. “Autonomy is something that’s incredibly exciting for us,” Cook said in an interview with Bloomberg. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He also called it “the mother of all AI projects.” But Apple is focused on autonomous systems, of which self-driving cars are just one application, he said.

Most non-automakers entering the AV space have steered clear of building their own cars, a time-consuming task with costs and complications that are evident from Tesla’s journey as a Silicon Valley car startup. Apple could simply develop and sell self-driving platforms and services for use in other companies’ vehicles, though that would be a departure from its more common practice of integrating hardware, software and services in one distinctively designed package.

Waydo’s departure comes at a critical time for Waymo, which has committed itself to launching a commercial ride-hailing service with driverless cars in the Phoenix area this year. Waydo reportedly played a key role in deciding when to remove the backup drivers from those cars.

Competition for talent is fierce among self-driving companies. Qualified AV engineers and computer scientists in the San Francisco Bay Area command average annual salaries of almost $300,000, Forbes reported last year.

Efforts to attract senior engineers were central to Waymo’s landmark lawsuit against Uber earlier this year.

Waymo alleged that Uber poached its top engineer, Anthony Levandowski, in a plan that involved Uber acquiring Levandowski’s startup Otto for up to $680 million. The scheme included Levandowski handing over Waymo trade secrets to Uber, the company alleged. The case was settled out of court for $245 million.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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