August 10, 2018 1:15 PM, EDT

Former Chief Tesla Vehicle Engineer Doug Field Returns to Apple

Doug FieldTony Gutierrez/AP Images

Apple Inc. said it rehired Doug Field after the executive spent about five years at Tesla Inc. in charge of vehicle engineering.

The hire is significant for Apple, with Field likely joining the company’s car unit, known as Project Titan. Apple kicked off an ambitious effort to develop a self-driving car around 2015 to take on Tesla and Detroit. After opening up new offices, car engineering machine shops and hiring thousands of engineers, Apple shifted from building a car to focus on underlying self-driving technology.

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Field, one of four top executives named in Tesla’s proxy, left the electric automaker in late June after taking an extended leave of absence. Last year, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tasked him with overseeing engineering and production, and Field made headlines in March with an e-mail to workers that urged them to “prove a bunch of haters wrong” by boosting Model 3 output. But by April, Musk had taken direct control of manufacturing and in May, the company said Field was on leave to spend time with his family and “recharge.”

Field, 53, previously worked at Apple as a top hardware engineer for product design and Mac computers from 2008 until 2013 when he left for Tesla. Prior to Apple, Field was the chief technology officer for Segway. Upon hiring him from Apple, Musk praised Field, who had said he had never “seriously considered leaving Apple” until he was offered the top Tesla engineering role.

Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr confirmed Field has rejoined Apple, but didn’t say what he is working on. The hire was earlier reported by website Daring Fireball.

Apple’s self-driving technology now is at the center of a lawsuit involving a former engineer who allegedly stole materials and brought them to a Chinese car company. The lawsuit revealed that Apple has a few thousand engineers on the project and that it is growing strong.

In 2016, Bob Mansfield, Apple’s former chief engineer who had attempted to retire from the company multiple times, returned to lead the car project. He immediately shuttered the teams working on the physical car hardware. He determined it would be best to work on the underlying technology and then later decide if the company would return to building a vehicle or partner with an existing carmaker.

The return of Field could indicate that Apple is, once again, working on actual car hardware. Given his extensive experience in the industry as an engineering manager, Field also could be an eventual replacement for Mansfield, who, while in charge of the self-driving car project, has not run it on a day-to-day basis.