Apple's Robo-Car Letter Reveals 30-Year Detroit Veteran On Its Stealth Auto Team
As carmakers and tech companies race to perfect self-driving vehicles, Apple’s program and its automotive intentions remain notably ambiguous. Like Washington’s old rule about the National Security Agency, its very existence isn’t to be mentioned – at least not by the company.
Yet when Apple recently offered views on preliminary guidelines for autonomous vehicles in a letter to U.S. regulators, it let slip an interesting detail: Its “Titan” project team has a high-level Big 3 veteran with more than 30 years of industry expertise.
The author of Apple’s comments to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is Steve Kenner, identified in the letter as the company’s director of product integrity. It confirms that Apple wants the option to test automated vehicles on public roads, though it doesn’t mention a specific plan to do so or an intention to commercialize such technology.
Prior to the letter, Kenner doesn’t show up in media reports or corporate information on Apple. Based on a LinkedIn profile, he was global director of Ford’s Automotive Safety Office, starting in 2011. Though the profile also indicates he still holds that job, Ford confirmed that Kenner left the company in April 2015. Apple’s PR team didn’t respond to multiple emails and a phone call seeking to verify when he joined the Cupertino, California, company and his responsibilities there.
If you’re a massive tech company with remarkably deep pockets and want to get an automotive program off the ground, Kenner is a fine choice. He began his auto career in 1978 as an engineer for General Motors, where he worked for 14 years. From there, he spent 12 years as an engineering director for Chrysler, before joining Ford as a chief engineer in 2004, moving up the ladder through a variety of management positions before taking his vehicle safety role in 2011.
Rumors and speculation about Apple’s auto plans have swirled for years, but intensified in 2016 as companies including Google, Uber, Ford, Volvo, Tesla and General Motors stepped up self-driving vehicle plans. In October, reports citing anonymous sources said Apple was scaling back its auto program and cutting hundreds of engineering and developer positions.
Based Kenner’s outdated profile, apparently Apple doesn’t want members of its auto group, particularly those recruited from the auto industry, to alert the outside world who they now work for.
Few industries are as heavily regulated, as capital intensive and fundamentally complex. Experience matters.
For all the progress Elon Musk’s Tesla has made since it started delivering electric cars in 2008, the company still grapples with fundamental issues including varying state-by-state rules on how vehicles can be sold, building a robust and reliable base of parts suppliers and finding the funds needed for ever larger production capacity and technological advancement.
Famed hacker George Hotz recently saw his plans to be a disruptor in the automated vehicle space by selling the $999 Comma One device, designed to let cars partially drive themselves, disrupted. Federal regulators alerted him that he needed to provide technical data validating the safety of his product before it could be approved for U.S. sale. The incident made clear just how important it is to have advisers with deep knowledge when seeking to break into the auto business.
Kenner appears to be exactly that.
His title at Apple reveals nothing about what he does, though his letter confirms the company retains a genuine interest in automated vehicles. Short of a clear announcement from CEO Tim Cook, it’s going to take a whole lot more public memos to clear up Apple’s plans.