Doug Betts, who led global quality at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV until last year, is now working for the Cupertino, Calif.-based electronics giant but declined to comment on the position when reached Monday. Mr. Betts’ LinkedIn profile says he joined Apple in July and describes his title as “Operations-Apple Inc.” with a location in the San Francisco Bay Area but no further specifics.
Apple declined to comment on the new hire. It’s not immediately clear whether he is part of the company’s car initiative or if he will work on an existing product line.
Along with Mr. Betts, whose expertise points to a desire to know how to build a car, Apple recently recruited one of the leading autonomous-vehicle researchers in Europe and is building a team to work on those systems.
Apple, with nearly $200 billion in cash reserves, has joined Google Inc. and other nontraditional auto companies in exploring ways to make systems for vehicles or build entire cars that increasingly rely on sophisticated software systems to operate.
The interest of tech companies in the auto industry has sparked a race between Silicon Valley and traditional auto hubs, including Frankfurt and Detroit, to secure the talent and resources necessary to compete in a transformed auto industry.
Car-sharing service Uber Technologies Inc. poached 40 researchers from a Carnegie Mellon University program that competed with a range of auto companies and tech companies. Apple earlier in the year settled a lawsuit filed by battery maker A123 Systemsclaiming the Cupertino company attempted to use A123 employees to start a battery operation.
More than 17 million light vehicles are expected to be sold in the U.S. this year and about 85 million are sold annually around the world. Companies increasingly see cars as a mobile device on wheels, with billions of dollars in new revenue potential.
Apple has hired hundreds of people to work on an electric-car project code-named “Titan.” Because Apple hasn’t publicly acknowledged the work, it is difficult to gauge how serious its plans are for building an electric car.
Apple has targeted employees at Tesla to fill out its team working on the car, according to people familiar with the matter. On a call with analysts in May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he hoped that Apple would get into the car business but noted that Tesla had recruited five times as many employees from Apple as Apple had poached from Tesla in the previous 12 months.
Earlier this year, Apple hired Paul Furgale a well-regarded autonomous vehicle researcher in Switzerland, and has begun recruiting other robotics and machine vision experts to work on a confidential project.
Mr. Furgale had been deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH. Mr. Furgale previously had led a European Commission project called V-Charge that sought to develop self-parking vehicle technology.
He didn’t respond to phone and email messages for comment. A member of the lab in Switzerland confirmed that he left the institute to work for Apple but didn’t have a contact number for him.
Mr. Furgale has begun recruiting students and researchers to work with him. Apple has hired a graduate student studying at the University of Michigan and has quietly recruited others.
Apple CEO Tim Cook appointed Steve Zadesky to lead the group, a veteran product designer and former Ford Motor Co. engineer. Mr. Zadesky was given permission to create a 1,000-person team and recruit employees from other parts of Apple, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Betts could be the first major automotive executive to join Apple with experience leveled more at the manufacturing side of the business.
For nearly two decades, he has worked in product quality and manufacturing at an auto company, first as a general manager at Toyota Motor Corp. and later as a vice president at Nissan Motor Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, now FCA US LLC.
In 2009, when Fiat SpA took over Chrysler, CEO Sergio Marchionne tapped Mr. Betts to lead the company’s quality turnaround, giving him far-reaching authority over the company’s brands and even the final say on key production launches.
Mr. Betts abruptly left Fiat Chrysler last year to pursue other interests. The move came less than a day after the car maker’s brands ranked poorly in an influential reliability study.