Seven Years Later, an Apple Car Is Still on the Horizon

This week came minutes after news broke that former Tesla executive Doug Field, who led Apple’s car project, was blaming Ford, the Cupertino company’s venture, in what was called an all-hands meeting.

Field, who explained that he was joining the Detroit carmaker “to try to make a difference,” was the latest in a long line to pull out of Project Titan, Apple’s secret plan to build a self-driving car.

He was the fourth head of the project to depart in seven years, and the team has shed the blood of three other senior executives over the past few months. Employees panicked as the media speculated that Apple might be pulling the plug on the car.

But at a half-hour briefing, Apple executives said there would be a restructuring, but no layoffs, according to two people present. As of Thursday, Bloomberg reported that Kevin Lynch, who is leading Apple’s Watch and health projects, will take over on Project Titan. The car was still on the road.

Tesla’s founding board director and former Zoox board member Laurie Yoller said that despite the unrest, it is too early to give time on Apple’s seven-year effort to build a car.

“I know a lot of people who have been there in the last few months,” she said. “Not a huge number, a dozen or so, but they are all gone recently. They are from the likes of Waymo, Zoox and Airbus. These are really senior people.”

car falls test

Still, after all these years, Apple is nowhere close to launching a car. The company has never acknowledged the existence of Project Titan, even though it has to file reports on how many miles its test cars get in California.

These prototypes, usually white Lexus models with an array of sensors on the roof, drive often enough for Jean Bai, an architectural design photographer, to sit and take pictures of them outside Apple facilities in and around Cupertino.

But the 19,000 “autonomous miles” driven by Apple’s cars last year is a fraction of the 630,000 miles completed by Alphabet’s Waymo car project in California. The numbers are also dwindling; This is just a quarter of the total in 2018. Waymo also states that its vehicles traveled an average of about 30,000 miles between interventions by its test drivers, compared to 145 miles for Apple.

Apple’s initial optimism of the project was evident in 2015, when CEO Tim Cook said at a Wall Street Journal conference that he wanted people to have “an iPhone experience in their car.” He continued: “It’s all about trying to make your life comfortable outside the car and your life inside the car.” At the time, the smartphone market looked saturated and revenues were falling. Apple needed a new product.

But the iPhone maker isn’t the only company whose initial vision proved more ambitious than realistic. Google’s Larry Page said Robotaxis could be “bigger than Google”. In 2016, Tesla’s Elon Musk called self-driving cars “basically a solved problem” and predicted “full autonomy.” . . in less than two years”.

As of 2017, Facebook’s head of operations Sheryl Sandberg charmed a German car show with this opening line: “I’ve come with great news: We’re the only company in Silicon Valley that isn’t making cars.”

Apple’s advantage is unclear

But the promise of an autonomous vehicle was premature. Leaders who have spent billions of dollars building technology are nowhere close to making up for their investment. Some have failed majorly: Uber and Lyft shut down their projects over the past year.

“There was a lot of hobby in 2010 when all these programs in Robotaxis were started by tech companies,” said Angus Pakala, chief executive of digital lidar group Auster. “They were like, ‘We’re about to steam up the auto industry like Nokia and Blackberry.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Today the revolution seems to be fast fading away, while Apple’s advantages in the market are hard to grasp.

“I just don’t see where Apple will have a technological edge,” said Bernstein analyst Arndt Ellinghorst. “It can only be in the autonomy that the world is chasing. Not having an edge in a market where it is very difficult to make money is not a good proposition.”

Apple has supply chain expertise, a desirable brand, and arguably the world’s leading ability to combine hardware with software and services. Still, little about its product portfolio indicates that it can surpass Tesla on battery performance or beat Mercedes and BMW when it comes to designing an interior or manufacturing it on a large scale. .

Apple's test car on the road in California

Apple’s test car on the road in California © Jean Bai

Recent patent grants give some indication that the team is now working on all aspects of the rider experience, not necessarily the car itself.

Last month alone Apple was granted a patent for outdoor lighting technology capable of displaying text, motion and light warnings; For another security system that includes airbags that are positioned from the roof of the vehicle and the passenger’s safety belt.

Another feature was lights inside the vehicle to guide the passenger to charge the iPhone or keep their coffee in the dark. Other patents last month concern visual sensors for autonomous driving, suspension systems and traffic notifications.

‘No way Apple is making cars’

Manuela Papadopol, a car industry veteran and chief executive of Designated Driver, a start-up focused on operating cars remotely, is all indication that Apple is looking to enhance the digital cockpit from the vehicle and redefine elements of the passenger experience. lowering his ambitions. .

“There’s no way on earth that Apple is building a car,” she said.

“Don’t get me wrong: I think the opportunity in automotive for Apple is incredible — not in building cars, but in interior space. They can offer augmented and virtual reality in windows. That’s where the opportunity lies.” “

Meanwhile, many who left Project Titan said it had not yet chosen a clear path. Incumbent carmakers are rarely afraid of their turf being attacked by the iPhone maker.

“I really don’t understand why anyone is afraid of Apple. [car] industry,” said Sasha Ostojic, operating partner at venture capital conglomerate Playground Global and Cruise, a former engineer at GM’s autonomous unit.

“When I did engineering at Cruise, I interviewed a bunch of people from Apple’s specialty product group” – where Titan is housed – “and most of them were disillusioned and they said, ‘Well, most Research is directionless and we don’t really know where it’s going. We’d rather work on a serious program instead.

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