Apple Said to Develop Car Operating System in BlackBerry Country

  • Canada office hires engineers from BlackBerry’s QNX unit
  • Apple said to test self-driving software with virtual reality

Apple's Vision Questioned in Search for Next Big Thing

Apple Inc. has dozens of software engineers in Canada building a car operating system, a rare move for a company that often houses research and development projects close to its Cupertino, California headquarters, according to people familiar with the matter.

Many of the engineers working in Canada were hired over the past year and about two dozen came from BlackBerry Ltd.’s QNX, a leading automotive software provider, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing details of a secret project.

The engineers now work at an Apple office in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, about a five-minute walk from QNX, the people said. Apple targeted QNX employees because of their experience developing fundamental components of operating systems and power management, a former QNX executive said. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

The most notable Apple hire from QNX was its chief executive officer, Dan Dodge. Since joining Apple’s Project Titan car initiative early this year, he’s taken on a larger role overseeing the car operating system, splitting his time between Canada and California, the people said. Another notable addition is Derrick Keefe, who left QNX last year after more than a decade as a senior engineer, one of the people said.

The car operating system is the software core of a future Apple car platform, in the same way iOS powers the iPhone. A separate Apple team is developing software that would guide future self-driving cars and run on the operating system, one of the people said.

The autonomous software was only one of many features once planned to run on the car operating system. For example, Apple engineers envisioned a heads-up display showing apps such as maps that could be manipulated by the company’s voice-based digital assistant Siri, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

The fate of these features depends on Project Titan’s overall strategic direction. Bob Mansfield, who took over the project in April, has given engineers a deadline of next fall to prove the self-driving technology before deciding on next steps, people familiar with the matter have said.

Other Project Titan teams include a self-driving platform simulation group, according to one of the people familiar with the situation. Apple has developed simulators that use virtual reality to test the self-driving software without taking the system onto public roads. That team now includes VR expert Doug Bowman, another person said. He joined Apple in January, according to the Financial Times.

Apple’s moves are a blow to BlackBerry, which often singles out QNX as a key source of future growth. The QNX unit maintains the operating system used in more than 60 million cars, mostly for "infotainment" systems like Ford Motor Co.’s Sync.

In January, the Waterloo, Ontario-based company said it was working on building out QNX’s operating system so it could be used to run autonomous driving software. And it has signed deals with self-driving car startups like AdasWorks to integrate their technology into QNX.

"We’re in a global world of big technology companies fighting for talent," Marty Beard, BlackBerry’s chief operating officer, said, when asked about Apple hiring QNX talent. "It’s not surprising."

Beard said QNX is still growing and its plans to build autonomous-vehicle software are still on track.

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