Drive.ai, a self-driving startup that was once valued at $200 million, was supposedly closing its doors and laying off all its staff — but Apple has now confirmed to Axios and The Verge that it’s acquired the struggling startup instead.
Three weeks ago, Apple was said to be in talks to buy Drive.ai, which was founded in 2015 by machine learning researchers from Stanford University and had been running a ride-hailing service with its autonomous shuttles in Texas. The deal could have resulted in dozens of Drive.ai engineers joining the tech giant’s secretive Project Titan, which has gone through its own struggles.
But earlier today, it seemed like that deal had fallen through. The Mountain View, Calif.-based Drive.ai filed notice with a state agency indicating its intention to close permanently and lay off 90 employees, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
A year ago, Drive.ai appeared to be one of the more promising startups to be working on autonomous cars. The company made a name for itself for using deep learning to recognize and avoid objects on the road. Last year, Drive.ai sparked headlines when it conducted fixed-route tests with its autonomous vehicles without human safety drivers on public roads.
The startup’s fleet of modified Nissan NV200s were highlighter orange, bright to the point of searing, with a wavy blue stripe and “self-driving vehicle” emblazoned on the side. They also featured four LED screens — one on the hood, two above each of the front tires, and one on the rear — that display messages to pedestrians and anyone else in close proximity to the car. The screens displayed messages that convey the vehicle’s intent to pedestrians and other vehicles on the road — “waiting,” “going,” “entering,” or “exiting,” for example.
But it wasn’t enough to survive in an environment of consolidation and lowered expectations. Investors have poured billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle startups, many of which have scaled back their timelines or encountered technical challenges. Many experts see self-driving cars as being years, if not decades, away from full deployment. Meanwhile, many of the bigger firms working on the technology are eyeing partnerships in the interest of spreading the enormous costs across many companies.
It’s not clear just how much of Drive.ai will survive at Apple, or whether the startup’s mass layoffs will proceed as scheduled this Friday. According to Axios’ sources, Apple purchased the company’s assets, including its autonomous cars, but both Axios and the San Francisco Chronicle suggest that Apple chose to hire engineers away from Drive.ai directly. Other workers may not be coming along for the ride.
A spokesperson for Drive.ai declined to comment.
Correction, 9:05 PM ET: Apple has confirmed it has purchased Drive.ai. We’d previously reported that Drive.ai’s plans to shut its doors and lay off all employees suggested that a deal with Apple had fallen through, but that’s not the case.