Michael Schwekutsch, a director of engineering in the Apple Special Projects Group that’s reportedly working on self-driving cars, has left to join electric air taxi start-up Archer as its senior VP of engineering. Schwekutsch noted the change on his LinkedIn page on Wednesday.
The move is the latest example of staff turnover in Apple‘s secretive car project. Former VP of special projects Doug Field left in September to lead Ford’s emerging technology efforts, a priority for the legacy automaker under its new Ford+ turnaround plan.
The move also indicates that tech start-ups attacking climate issues can attract the most qualified engineers. A former VP of engineering at Tesla, Schwekutsch holds more than 100 patents related to vehicle design, worked on prototypes for the Tesla Plaid systems, and led production of electric drive systems for several vehicle models from Tesla, Porsche, BMW and others, according to his online resume.
Archer is working on electric-powered air taxis that take off and land vertically. Like competitors Lilium and Joby Aviation, Archer aims to transport passengers on short trips, avoiding traffic on the ground and the noise and emissions generated by traditional fuel-burning aircraft and cars.
It’s already developed a model known as the Maker that can carry one passenger and a pilot, and is working on a four-passenger model. The company aims to operate urban air mobility services starting in Los Angeles once its aircraft are cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial use.
Founded in 2018 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., Archer went public in September after merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Atlas Crest Investment Corp.
Archer previously announced that United Airlines not only invested in its business, but also placed an order for $1 billion of its fully electric aircraft with the option to buy an additional $500 million worth over time.
Commercial passenger aviation generated 785 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to research by the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association predicts that air travel passenger numbers will recover to more than 85% of pre-pandemic levels next year, and surpass pre-pandemic levels by 5% in 2023.
The EV threat from Apple
Apple has never acknowledged it’s working on a car, but multiple media reports since 2014 have tracked its progress, it has a driverless vehicle testing permit in California, and CEO Tim Cook has obliquely mentioned the company’s interest.
Regardless, the threat of the well-capitalized tech titan introducing an electric, driverless car has automotive and tech investors on notice.
In a note out Wednesday, Morgan Stanley equity analysts Katy L. Huberty and Adam Jonas talked about how an Apple car might look, when it might launch, and how it would effect Tesla and the broader battery electric vehicle market.
Jonas wrote, “One of the things that we think drives Elon Musk and the Tesla’s mission isn’t ‘can we make a better EV than Volkswagen’ or something.” Instead, he said, Tesla is motivated to gain every competitive advantage it can before Apple makes its move. “That fear of Apple potentially turning Tesla into a BlackBerry is one of the things that we think is motivating Tesla and their mission,” he said.
Apple, Archer and Schwekutsch did not immediately respond to requests for comment.