A few years ago, everyone believed Apple was working furiously on building an electric car. It had a secretive program code named Project Titan with up to 1,500 engineers reported assigned to it. Apple was poaching talent from Tesla at a great rate, leading Musk to say sardonically that Apple was where those who couldn’t make it at Tesla went to die. There were reports that Apple had leased space at a private testing facility in northern California where it could conduct vehicle testing far from the prying eyes of photo and print journalists.
Then everything stopped. Nothing more was heard of Project Titan except that most of the engineers assigned to it had been sent to work on other projects. The idea of an Apple car seemed dead in the water. Until now. Suddenly, the rumor mill has started up again for one reason and one reason only — Doug Field, the former Tesla engineer who was nominally in charge of getting the Model 3 ready for production — is back at Apple. (We say “nominally in charge” because Elon Musk has made it crystal clear on many occasions he is Tesla’s chief engineer and everyone else reports to him.)
Germany’s Manager Magazin is reporting this week (translation by Google), “Apple is making a new attempt to design its own electric vehicle, which should also be able to drive autonomously,” citing “several people familiar with development. The piece goes on to say, “After that, the Apple Car could come in the form of an electric van. Apple’s engineers have designed specimens with black and silver paint, designed in the typical industrial design of the iPhone group. Apple also researches on its own batteries, electric motors, special seats and interior components.”
Last year there were reports that Apple was working with Volkswagen on autonomous electric vans to shuttle employees around its various Silicon Valley locations. That ties in nicely with the “electric van” reference in the Manager Magazin article. 9to5Mac points out that Apple CEO Tim Cook made a statement in 2017 with regard to autonomous vehicles.
“There is a major disruption looming there […] We’re focusing on autonomous systems, and clearly one purpose of autonomous systems is self-driving cars. There are others, and we sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on. And so autonomy is something that’s incredibly exciting for us.”
So there’s plenty of smoke circulating around an Apple Car at the moment but is there any fire? 9to5Mac has two theories on that subject. First, if Apple is actually researching “batteries, electric motors, special seats, and interior components,” that sounds a lot like a company that is planning on building an electric car, or at least pieces of one it can sell to other companies.
The second theory is more intriguing. Waymo, the self-driving arm of Google, is pushing aggressively forward with plans to begin autonomous passenger service. It has contracted for 66,000 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and 10,000 Jaguar I-PACE SUVs. Perhaps Apple is not happy to see its crosstown rival jumping out to such a commanding lead in the autonomous ride sharing sweepstakes.
Either way, there is something up at Apple that has to do with transportation. What it is, exactly, will be revealed to us only when Tim Cook is good and ready. The conventional wisdom is that Apple is not interested in being just a supplier to the auto industry. Stay tuned.