Tue. Oct 19th, 2021

Minutes after the news broke this week that Doug Field, the former Tesla CEO who led Apple’s car project, was going to Ford, the Cupertino company held a meeting of all.

Field, who explained that he’s joining the Detroit automaker for the chance to try to make a difference, was the latest in a long line of exits from Project Titan, Apple’s mysterious plan to build a self-driving car.

He was the fourth head of the project to leave in seven years, and the team flourished three other senior executives the past few months. Staff were upset because the media speculated that Apple could pull the car’s plug.

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

Despite the turmoil, it was too early to make time for Apple’s seven-year effort to build a car, says Laurie Yoler, a founding member of Tesla and a former board member at Zoox.

“I know a lot of people who have been going there for the past few months,” she said. ‘Not a huge number, a dozen or so, but they’ve all gone recently. They come from people like Waymo, Zoox and Airbus. These are really senior people. ”

Motor tests fall

Yet, after all these years, it seems like Apple is not getting any closer to launching a car. The company has never acknowledged that Project Titan exists, even though it has to submit reports on how many miles its test cars drive in California.

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

But the 19,000 “autonomous miles” that Apple’s cars drove last year is only a fraction of the 630,000 miles that Alphabet’s Waymo car project in California. The number is also shrinking; that’s only 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.

The early optimism of Apple’s 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 added: “It’s all about making your life outside the car and your life in the car seamless.” At the time, the smartphone market seemed saturated and revenue was declining. Apple needs a new product.

But the iPhone maker is not the only company whose early vision was more ambitious than realistic. Google’s Larry Page said robotic action could be ‘bigger than Google’. In 2016, Elon Musk of Tesla called self-driving cars “basically a solved problem” and predicted “complete autonomy.” . . in less than two years ”.

By 2017, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg had captivated a German car show with the first line: “I have good news: we are the only company in Silicon Valley that does not build a car.”

Apple’s advantage is unclear

But the promise of the autonomous vehicle was too early. The leaders who spent billions of dollars to build the technology are nowhere near recovering their investments. Some have failed prominently: Uber and Lyft have each cut their projects over the past year.

“In 2010, when all these programs were started by the technology companies in robotaxis, there was a lot of noise,” says Angus Pacala, CEO of the digital lidar group Ouster. “They said, ‘We’re going to steamroll the car industry, just like Nokia and BlackBerry.’ And it can not be further from the truth. ”

The revolution currently looks further and further, while Apple’s advantages in the market are difficult to discern.

“I just do not see where Apple has a technological advantage,” says Bernstein analyst Arndt Ellinghorst. ‘It can only be autonomous, chasing the world. Not having an edge in a market where it is incredibly difficult to make money is not a good idea. “

Apple has supply chain expertise, a desired brand and probably the world’s leading ability to combine hardware with software and services. However, very little about its product portfolio suggests that it could surpass Tesla’s battery power or beat Mercedes and BMW when it comes to designing an interior or manufacturing to scale.

Apple's test car on the road in California

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

Recently patent awards gives some hints that the team is now engaged in all aspects of the equestrian experience, not necessarily the car itself.

Last month alone, Apple granted patents for outdoor lighting technology that could display text, speed and light warnings; another for a safety system that includes airbags deployed from the vehicle’s roof and passenger seat belt.

Another one was for a sleek lighting in the vehicle that led the passenger to charge an iPhone or put their coffee down in the dark. Other patents granted last month relate to visual sensors for autonomous driving, suspension systems and traffic notifications.

“No way Apple builds a car”

For Manuela Papadopol, a veteran in the automotive industry and CEO of Designated Driver, a company that focuses on driving cars remotely, all indications are that Apple is scaling down its ambitions of the vehicle to improve the digital cabin and elements of redefine the passenger experience. .

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

‘Do not get me wrong: I think the opportunity for Apple is incredible in the car – not in building cars, but inside. They can project a larger and virtual reality into the windows. That’s where the opportunity lies. ”

Meanwhile, several people who have left Project Titan have said it has not yet chosen a clear path forward. The current car manufacturers rarely sound intimidated by the iPhone manufacturer penetrating their grass.

‘I do not really understand that anyone is afraid of Apple [car] Sasha Ostojic, operating partner at venture capital group Playground Global and a former engineer at Cruise, GM’s autonomous unit, said.

“When I was an engineer at Cruise, I interviewed a bunch of people from Apple’s specialty products group” – where Titan is housed – “and most were disillusioned and said,” Well, most of the research is directionless and we do not really know where it is going. We are rather working on a serious program. ‘

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