Was it an impulse decision that Apple ended up hiring more than a thousand engineers from top automakers in the last couple of years to work on its not-so-secretive Project Titan? Maybe, or maybe not. Apple needed that many engineers to build a full-fledged autonomous car, especially considering it had little experience in the automobile industry. Many Apple car engineers have since left the company. A new report claims that another 17 engineers left Apple to join the autonomous driving start-up Zoox in recent months.

Apple Car Engineers
Image Credit: MacRumors / YouTube video (screenshot)

Why these Apple car engineers moved to Zoox

Sources familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Silicon Valley-based Zoox had snagged as many as 17 Apple car engineers in the last few months. The people who left Apple specialize in designing systems for both traditional and self-driving vehicles such as braking and suspension systems. Most of them were originally working for Detroit carmakers and suppliers before joining Apple.

Why did they leave Apple, the world’s most valuable company, to join a startup? The Cupertino company was previously working to develop a full-fledged self-driving car. After facing many hurdles, Apple scaled back the project and appointed Bob Mansfield as the new chief of Project Titan. Mansfield fired a large number of engineers, and shifted the focus to developing the autonomous driving system first. He was given until the end of 2017 to prove the viability of the Project.

Developing the autonomous driving technology would allow Apple to license its technology to established carmakers or develop its own car at a later date. However, the latest departure of 17 Apple car engineers suggests that the company doesn’t intend to build an Apple-branded car. Sources told Bloomberg that these engineers found themselves sidelined and less engaged than before. They were surplus to Apple’s requirements, so they chose to leave.

This is not the first time Zoox has hired Apple employees. It had poached a few supply chain specialists from the iPhone maker in the past. The Menlo Park-based startup has raised $290 million since its inception. It is currently valued at more than $1 billion. Earlier this year, it appointed former NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind as its chief safety innovation officer, and former Ferrari executive Corrado Lanzone as its manufacturing head. Zoox aims to build a fleet of fully automated electric vehicles to offer mobility as a service.

Where is the Project Titan headed?

So, what happens to the Apple car project now? The tech giant has certainly not given up on its automobile ambitions. It already offers CarPlay infotainment system to existing automakers. Tim Cook told Bloomberg in June that Apple was developing the autonomous driving systems. He called it the “mother of all AI projects.” Right now, it is exploring different options.

Apple has received the permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test its self-driving systems on public roads using six Lexus SUVs. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that Apple had partnered with an established carmaker to make self-driving shuttles to ferry its employees from one campus to another. It is not yet known when these driverless shuttles will hit the roads.

In the future, the tech giant could also join hands with a ride-hailing company or an automaker to deploy its self-driving systems. It has already invested $1 billion in Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing, which could give Apple tons of traffic data to improve its autonomous driving technology. Earlier this month, Apple was granted patent for a vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology that could significantly reduce the number of car crashes.

Apple’s automobile ambitions aren’t limited to self-driving

Apple may have fired hundreds of engineers and scaled back the Project Titan, but various reports still suggest that the company is interested in building an Apple-branded car in the future. For instance, if it’s interested only in autonomous driving, why would it join hands with a Chinese battery maker to develop more efficient batteries for electric vehicles?

According to Chinese publication Yicai Global, Apple is working with Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) on EV batteries. The battery is one of the biggest challenges for EV makers. It took Tesla years to develop battery technologies that offer a respectable range. CATL is one of the world’s largest supplier of batteries for electric cars, electric trucks, electric buses, and for stationary energy storage. It aims to increase its output to 50GWh by 2020.

The agreement with CATL is a clear indication that Apple won’t just stop with autonomous driving systems. Developing a technologies and licensing it to other players is not Apple’s way. It controls both software and hardware aspects for any product it builds, including the iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple Watch. Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley believes the tech giant will eventually be able to offer customers a complete transportation experience, maybe similar to what Zoox has been trying to do.