Apple has hired a longtime Ford Motor Company executive who helped lead safety efforts and automotive engineering, in a sign that the iPhone maker is once again pushing ahead with electric vehicle development.
The tech giant has hired Desi Ujkashevic to run the car project, according to people familiar with the matter. Ujkashevic has been with Ford since 1991, most recently as global director of automotive safety engineering. Before that, she helped oversee the interior and exterior structure, chassis and electrical components of many Ford models.
According to her LinkedIn profile, the executive has worked on the Ford Escape, Explorer, Fiesta and Focus, as well as Lincoln MKC and Aviator. She also helps the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker develop new electric vehicles. Ujkashevic has experience dealing with regulatory issues that will be key for Apple to get cars on the road.
The Cupertino, California-based company declined to comment on the hiring. Meanwhile, Ford said Ujkashevic had retired from the automaker.
Ujkashevic’s signing shows Apple’s continued push for self-driving cars despite several high-profile departures over the past year. The project’s management team has all but been replaced since Doug Field, joined Ford last year.
Making electric self-driving cars is considered Apple’s “next big thing” — a new product category that could prevent sales growth from stagnating. But the program has undergone several changes in strategy and personnel since it launched about seven years ago.
Last year’s turnover was particularly high. In addition to Field’s departure, Apple also lost key executives in charge of hardware engineering, robotics and sensors. In some cases, senior engineers were leaving to join air taxi startups.
Following Field’s resignation, the company tapped Apple Watch and health software chief Kevin Lynch to oversee the project. Lynch is a respected software engineering manager but has never led vehicle development before. Still, the company is trying to accelerate the project under Lynch — with the goal of releasing a product by 2025.
The Apple car will put the company in competition with Tesla Inc and Lucid Group Inc. as well as traditional automakers racing to adopt electric vehicles. Ford has been particularly aggressive in electric vehicles recently, pushing for the electrification of America’s best-selling vehicle: the F-150 pickup.
As part of the project, Apple hires are also trying to master autonomous driving — a holy grail in the auto industry that tech companies like Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are also grappling with.
Apple has struggled for years to agree on a vision for its car, which has been in development since around 2015. The current hope is to create something completely autonomous, without the traditional steering wheel and pedals. The company also tried to emphasize the safety of its vehicle.
To that end, the company is trying to develop stronger safeguards than those offered by Tesla and Waymo. That includes building in a lot of redundancy — layers of backup systems stepping in to avoid failure of safety and drive systems. Ujkashevic may have been involved in this component. Apple hired Jaime Waydo as head of vehicle safety in 2018, but the Waymo veteran left the company last year.
Ujkashevic is now one of the few auto industry executives on the Apple Auto team, but there are others. Last year, Apple hires included Ulrich Kranz, a former BMW executive and former head of self-driving startup Canoo. Also involved were former Tesla executives and self-driving software developer Stuart Bowers, as well as Jonathan Sive, a former executive at Tesla, Waymo and BMW.
At Ford, Ujkashevic is one of the company’s best-known managers and serves as a designated executive on its website.
“Desi brings a wealth of leadership experience to the global automotive industry,” in her biography on Ford’s website. The company credits her for improving the 118-year-old company’s product, quality and customer experience.
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