Apple Car's Need for Talent Crushes a Vehicle Startup

An ailing electric motorcycle startup files for bankruptcy after losing key engineers to Apple

2 min read
Apple Car's Need for Talent Crushes a Vehicle Startup
Photo: iStockphoto

Apple’s efforts to develop a self-driving car have spurred the company to recruit engineering talent from a wide variety of rival tech giants and automakers. But the Silicon Valley giant’s pursuit of its own autonomous electric vehicle may have also put the nail in the coffin for an electric motorcycle startup.

Mission Motors, a sleek motorcycle startup that had set speed records for electric bikes, filed for bankruptcy last month. The startup had actually ceased operations in May due to lack of funding and the loss of critical engineering talent, according to Reuters. Derek Kaufman, former CEO of Mission Motors, said Apple swooped in to lure away key engineers with electric drive expertise at a time when the startup was attempting to raise a crucial round of funding. The loss of employees spooked at least one investor who had previously committed and prompted more employees to leave.

Tesla and Harley Davidson also ended up with some ex-employees of Mission Motors. Yet Apple grabbed the most talent by recruiting six engineers from the startup, Reuters sources said. The Mission Motors engineers represented a team with specialized knowledge of electric drives, such as software algorithms to manage battery charging and cooling.

The poaching of talent is hardly new in Silicon Valley. Huge tech companies such as Google and Facebook have been acquiring startups to poach engineers and other valuable talent for years. Tech blogs have frequently described the fate of the smaller companies in those cases as being “acqhired,” the New York Times observed in 2011.

Silicon Valley’s more recent race to develop advanced electric vehicles and self-driving cars has only intensified the poaching of talent. For example, Apple and Tesla Motors frequently poach engineers from one another. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently sniped at Apple for its poaching predilection during an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt; he suggested Apple only hired the engineers who “don’t make it at Tesla” and were fired.

In the case of Mission Motors, Apple apparently never offered to “acqhire” the startup wholesale for its talent. Some insiders told Reuters that the motorcycle startup was already on its last legs when Apple poached the first engineers, an account former CEO Kaufman disagrees with.

Mission Motors may represent one of the more tragic victims of Silicon Valley’s insatiable hunger for talent, but it’s not the only casualty. Battery maker A123 filed a lawsuit against Apple for poaching critical engineering talent earlier this year. In fact, Apple’s relentless hiring of engineering talent related to electric vehicles and self-driving cars represented one of the first big tipoffs of the Silicon Valley giant’s bigger intentions.

Some startup employees who end up being poached or acqhired by Silicon Valley’s tech giants probably won’t complain about the potentially more lucrative employment and opportunity to work on bigger projects. But the question remains as to whether the world has lost out on some new ideas or innovations whenever each tech startup, hollowed out by loss of employees or acquired purely for the talent on its payroll, ceases to exist.

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Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

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