A couple weeks ago, people made a big deal about Apple’s possible continued work on an electric car. Production was supposedly planned around 2024, with talk of a revolutionary “monocell” battery that could change the whole industry. Even Elon Musk got into the discussion on Twitter:
Strange, if true.
– Tesla already uses iron-phosphate for medium range cars made in our Shanghai factory.
– A monocell is electrochemically impossible, as max voltage is ~100X too low. Maybe they meant cells bonded together, like our structural battery pack?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 22, 2020
Is There Really Anything To These Apple Car Rumors?
There are two ways to look at this.
On the one hand, Apple really is doing something with cars, especially self driving cars. MacRumors has a great piece looking at its past efforts and the evidence that Apple is still serious about it. People are still seeing test vehicles, Apple is still actively recruiting, and it still holds both real estate and internet domains that may be dedicated to the project.
On the other hand, analysts think people outside of Apple are a little too optimistic about the release date. One prominent analyst, Ming-Chi Kuo, says the earliest we could really see a car from Apple is 2025, with 2028 being a lot more likely.
What Evidence Is There?
The thing that probably breeds the most skepticism about Apple’s car is just how little we’ve heard about it lately. Yes, Reuters talked to sources about the project, but before that the biggest stories were from 2017 and 2018, and that followed a big shakeup in 2016 that many saw as the end of the project.
Then, in 2019, the project looked even more dead when Apple laid off 200 employees that were reportedly in the car division. Apple said in a statement that “some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple.”
But then later in the year, Apple purchased Drive.ai, and hired dozens of its engineers, who could work alongside other autonomous vehicle engineers it had previously hired. A month later, Apple hired Steve MacManus, a former Tesla engineer. According to Bloomberg, that was its third hire of Tesla engineers that year.
MacRumors also reports that Apple likely still owns property that is likely associated with the project. The car project is known internally as “Project Titan,” while some of its buildings are called by the names of Greek gods. Also, it filed plans with Cupertino describing a number of automotive tools.
Finally, Apple still owns several car domains. Apple.car, apple.cars, and apple.auto are still current, and all expire in December of 2021, according to ICANN Lookup. In theory, these could be related to another Apple product like CarPlay, but the domains don’t currently point to any website, despite being currently registered to Apple.
Apple Is Always Secretive, Though
The evidence may be thin, but that definitely fits Apple’s modus operandi.
When developing the iPhone and iPad, Apple was deadly serious about security. When there was a prototype, developers were only allowed to handle it in a room with no windows, with the device chained to a desk, and only look at it under a black cloth. They even had custom frames built around the devices to keep the developers from being able to see what the device itself even looked like. The company even took pictures of every desk’s woodgrain, so that they could identify who leaked a photo if pictures were taken.
Teams have been separated completely, with each employee only knowing what they needed to know to do their jobs. That way, even if an employee leaks something, they’d only leak their small part of the puzzle. Only people at the top of the company ever knew what was happening with the whole of a project.
At manufacturing plants in China, employees have had to sign in with a key card, have their fingerprints scanned, and be subject to searches when leaving the property. If any metal left with an employee, they would call police to arrest the thief. In one case, a snooping reporter was beaten by guards.
They also like to make sure contract manufacturers are only ever working on part of an upcoming device. If there’s a leak, it’s easily identified, and the contractor-related leak would only reveal a portion of the product.
While there have been notable security slipups, like the time when an iPhone 4 prototype was left at a bar by an employee, that was seen as a stunning exception and not the rule. The phone was put in a case to make it look like an older phone model, but the person who found the phone removed the case and was able to see the real phone beneath.
So is the Apple Car Real?
There’s thin evidence that Apple is still aiming to build a car, and that’s about all the evidence we can expect from such a secretive company. The truth is, we really don’t know for sure, but it seems pretty likely.
What we have no idea at all about right now is the timing. Clearly Apple has suffered setbacks in the past on this project, and it has completely rebooted the project on multiple occasions. Given that Tesla is the only new mass automaker to really get a foothold and keep it in the last 100 years, it should be obvious that getting into that industry is extremely hard.
Even a company with the resources of Apple can’t turn such a challenging task into a cakewalk. There are some challenges that you can’t throw money at and expect to go away.
At the same time, though, Apple’s secrecy leaves us with other possibilities to consider.
For one, it could be working on something car-related that isn’t a car. The company could be working on self-driving car software that could eventually get sold to automakers for their use, which would explain all of the street testing without any reputable images of a prototype for a whole car. With its other integrations, like CarPlay, it would make sense to grow into the automotive space without actually building a whole car.
Apple might be doing something else entirely. While smartphones weren’t a completely new thing when the iPhone came out, Apple made a new device by making giant improvements over what came before. The clunky “Pocket PCs” and Palm Pilots seem like obvious predecessors in hindsight, but it took years for other manufacturers to come up with a real competitor.
It’s possible that Apple is working on something that inhabits the automotive space, but is radically different from today’s cars in enough key ways to make it a new product. Given the secrecy, it’s hard to speculate on what it could be, but it’s a possibility worth considering.
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