Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Two years ago, Apple had 1,000 or more people working on its autonomous car program, code-named Project Titan. There were rumors throughout the tech and auto industries that Apple was going to build its own self-driving car. It even hired a top software engineer who was deeply involved in Tesla’s Autopilot program.
Since then? Nothing. Rumors from within the company indicated senior management has shut Project Titan down and either reassigned most of its staff to other duties or let them go entirely. Now, the New York Times reports that, after years of trying to interest Mercedes and BMW in building a self-driving car featuring Apple software, the company has settled for converting Volkswagen T6 vans into semi-autonomous vehicles to shuttle Apple employees between campuses. Whether anything further comes from all the time and money Apple has invested in self-driving technology is unclear at this moment.
According to sources who spoke to the Times anonymously, the negotiations with Mercedes and BMW broke down over Apple’s demands that those companies allow it to design the vehicles and have control over the self-driving data collected. Both companies said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The project had its roots back in 2014, when Apple had visions of designing and building its own car, one that would be the four wheel equivalent of a smartphone. But building a car is a damnably difficult task, as Elon Musk and Tesla have discovered.
Apple switched its approach to finding an automotive company to build the car, but that effort was stymied by conflicts between the tech company and prospective manufacturers. The link up with Volkswagen is a pale shadow of the original concept. The T6 Transporter is a distant cousin to the original KombiVan beloved by anyone who ever got within 3000 miles of Woodstock, NY, in August of 1969. It is thoroughly updated with all the modern conveniences and safety improvements that have occurred over the past 50 years.
Available with various gasoline and diesel engines, the T6 has been converted to a fully electric vehicle with Level 3 autonomy for Volkswagen’s MOIA ride sharing service in Hamburg, Germany. The vans will be used to shuttle Apple employees between company campuses. They will have a human driver behind the wheel at all times and a second engineer in the passenger seat.
From all available reports, Apple today is where Waymo was 3 or more years ago. The race to develop self-driving cars is heating up and Apple seems to be far behind the leaders. Just this week, we reported that Mobileye has received an order for 8 million self-driving systems from an unnamed German auto maker. Before that, we took a look at self-driving companies in China that are aggressively pushing the envelope. Any pretense by Apple of being a leader in the field has now passed it by. At least these shuttle vans won’t be powered by internal combustion engines. That would have been the final ignominy.