The rumors about Apple’s move into the electric car business have been rapidly proliferating. There’s enough smoke that there’s got to be some kind of fire at its source, though Apple has yet to confirm anything. If you’ve missed the buzz, the short version is that Apple has launched “Project Titan” and is planning to start production of an electric minivan, possibly self-driving, as early as 2020. The company reportedly has several hundred engineers working on its electric vehicle program, which may or may not be related to the blue minivans cruising around Silicon Valley.
While Apple has been able to keep many of the details of its project under wraps, it has had less success keeping its hiring activities quiet—after all, the vast majority of experienced engineers the company is bringing in are leaving a current—or future—competitor.
This week, the Korea Times reported that Apple is “luring away Samsung Electronics' experts in next-generation technology,” including battery experts. The article quoted anonymous officials at Samsung who pointed to Apple’s large paychecks, benefits, and on-the-job independence as the bait. Earlier this month, electric-vehicle-battery-maker A123 Systems filed a lawsuit against Apple for poaching critical engineers.
And there has been a lot of chatter about Apple trying to draw Tesla engineers south with astronomical signing bonuses. To be fair, Tesla hasn't’t been whining about it much, because the highway between Apple and Tesla goes both ways, with Tesla hiring a reported 150 or more away from Apple. From what he’s said to the press, Musk seems to like competing with Apple for engineers, and it’s a competition he thinks he’s winning. Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told Bloomberg, “Elon has explained to me that it’s easy for him to hire someone from Apple, because when he does the interview process for a serious software engineer he’ll meet with the person and geek out with them. They’ll like talk about nerd software coding stuff.” Put the charismatic and intense Musk up against the quieter and far less readable Tim Cook, and it’s easy to see why this is a game Musk might like to play.
And the news just keeps coming. This week, Samsung announced that it is buying the battery-pack unit of Canadian company Magna. Magna has been rumored to be involved with the Apple car project. Is the acquisition to keep Magna out of Apple’s hands? Or because Samsung wants to partner with Apple? Or simply that it needs to replace the engineers lost to Apple. It’s not clear.
Samsung, A123, and Tesla aren’t the only companies who have recently had key engineers move over to Apple. 9to5Mac.com did a roundup of some of Apple’s recent hires, listing engineers drawn from Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Autoliv, EMCO Gears, and General Dynamics.
With many headlines calling Apple’s recent hiring efforts “poaching”, it’s hard to believe that recently Apple’s biggest HR problem was its policies AGAINST poaching–specifically, the no-poaching agreements the company made with Google, Intel, and others. The companies are still trying to settle a court-case involving those agreements; an early settlement offer was rejected by the courts as too small. But meanwhile, all this movement certainly demonstrates that the era of no-poaching agreements is over, and Silicon Valley is back to its roots as a place where engineers moving from company to company, pollinating innovation, is the norm.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.