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Apple self-driving car layoffs give hints to division's direction

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Apple plans to lay off people from eight different Santa Clara County facilities near its Cupertino headquarters, as of April 16.

Cupertino, California

APPLE Inc said on Wednesday it planned to lay off 190 employees in its self-driving car programme, Project Titan, changes that provide a rare window into the automotive technologies the company has been pursuing.

The tech firm said in a filing with state regulators that it planned to lay off people from eight different Santa Clara County facilities near its Cupertino, California, headquarters, as of April 16. A company spokesman confirmed that the reduction was from the self-driving car programme.

While the iPhone maker has acknowledged its interest in self-driving cars in broad terms, it has never detailed precisely which technologies it is working on and whether it seeks to build a whole vehicle or the sensors, computer system and software to control one. The public documents filed with regulators provide some previously undisclosed clues.

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Among those laid off were at least two dozen software engineers, including a machine learning engineer, and 40 hardware engineers, according to a letter sent by Apple to California employment regulators earlier this month.

Some of the positions hint at physical products for consumers: three product design engineers and an ergonomics engineer face layoffs.

A machine shop supervisor was among the reductions, though it is unclear how many machinists reported to the supervisor and whether the shop fabricates automotive parts or smaller parts for electronics and sensors.

The layoffs appear to be the first major shake-up of Project Titan under Doug Field, who returned to Apple last year as vice president of Special Projects after a stint at electric car maker Tesla Inc.

Apple operates the car project on a "need-to-know" basis, with only about 5,000 of Apple's 140,000 full-time workers included, according to court documents in a theft of trade secrets criminal case filed this year against an ex-Apple employee. About 1,200 of those are "core" employees that are "directly working on the development of the project," according to the complaint, unsealed in January.

Despite the headcount changes, the company appears to have ramped up its testing on California roads. REUTERS