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Yes, this is a Tesla pretending to be an Apple Car. Photo by Zach Shahan, CleanTechnica

Autonomous Vehicles

The On Again, Off Again Apple Car Project Is Back On Again — Again

On again, off again, on again, off again. Apple Project Titan is back on again.

For almost 7 years, Apple has been threatening to build a car, presumably one powered by a battery. The effort has been known internally as Project Titan and it has had 5 leaders in those 7 years. There have been rumors the company was in talks with Hyundai, Kia, Fisker, Canoo, Magna, and/or Foxconn about building the Apple Car (since it has no factory and no car manufacturing experience of its own), and it has approached both CATL and BYD about supplying batteries for the effort. To date, all of those companies have declined to get involved, so far as anyone knows.

What we know is limited, of course, as hard information from inside Apple is almost impossible to get. What we do know is that a fellow named Doug Field used to work for Ford before he went to Tesla and then from there to Cupertino to head up the Project Titan team. He walked away recently to go back to Ford, unhappy, according to sources, that he was forced to report to John Giannandrea, the head of artificial intelligence for the company.

A Car Or A Computer?

Therein lies the essential contradiction at Apple. Does it want to build cars or computers on wheels? According to Autoblog, that conflict has now been resolved. When Doug Field arrived in 2018, it was assumed the decision had been made to focus on building automobiles. But now Project Titan is in the hands of Kevin Lynch, the engineer primarily responsible for the success of the Apple Watch.

Lynch has no experience in the automobile manufacturing or autonomous vehicles field, but Apple has hired former Tesla executives like Michael Schwekutsch and Stuart Bowers to fill key roles in the Project Titan program. Earlier this year, it also hired Ulrich Kranz, who previously was a leader at Canoo and helped oversee development of BMW’s electric cars. Since the transition to Lynch, the focus at Apple has shifted dramatically toward making an autonomous car suitable for robotaxi duty rather than a car for sale to individual customers.

As of today, self driving is in; acceleration, cornering, and braking are out. According to people who are anxious to talk about Project Titan but unwilling to identify themselves because they are not suppose to talk about it, the latest concept versions of a possible Apple Car have no steering wheel, only a steering device that can be activated in an emergency. That’s a little jarring,  because that’s exactly where Google was before it spun off its autonomous car program into a new division called Waymo 10 years ago.

Full Autonomy By 2025

Insiders say Apple’s goal is to have fully autonomous cars ready by 2025. That’s ambitious. Waymo has been working on full autonomy for nearly 20 years. Tesla has been doing the same since the HW1 package rolled out in 2014. Waymo has suffered the loss of many of its engineers and Uber is getting out of the race entirely after agreeing to sell off its autonomous driving division last year.

Apple reportedly has designed its own self-driving computer chip based on the processors used for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. It intends to start retrofitting the new chip to its test fleet of self-driving cars in California and begin real-world testing next year. That chip consists primarily of neural processors that can handle the artificial intelligence needed for autonomous driving. It will be equipped with a sophisticated cooling system to remove excess heat from the processor while the cars are in operation.

Safety Is Key

Safety is a major concern for Apple, which is looking to build stronger safeguards into its self-driving system than are available from Tesla and Waymo. That effort will include creating several layers of redundancy — the ability for backup systems to be activated when needed to avoid safety and driving system failures.

Apple is actively looking to hire engineers to test and develop safety functions. “The Special Projects Group is seeking an accomplished mechanical engineer to lead the development of mechanical systems with safety critical functions,” one recent Apple job listing reads. “You will use your passion for figuring things out to help design safety systems and to lead the testing and countermeasure of those systems.”

As part of its effort to accelerate the project, Apple is hiring more self-driving and car hardware engineers. CJ Moore, Tesla’s former director of self-driving software, has already moved to Cupertino. Apple has also tapped a climate system expert from Volvo, a manager from Daimler Trucks, battery systems engineers from Karma Automotive and other carmakers, a sensor engineer from Cruise, automotive safety engineers from Joyson Safety Systems, and multiple engineers from Tesla. Years ago, Elon Musk quipped that Apple was where former Tesla engineers went to die.

The company is also hiring software engineers to work on “experiences for human interaction with autonomous technology,” according to an Apple job listing, suggesting it is deep into development of the car’s user interface. The listing implies the software being developed will be based on similar technology to the iPhone operating system.

If there ever is an Apple Car, it will likely be compatible with the combined charging system, which will allow it to use the ever expanding global network of CCS chargers. That would be a departure for Apple, which likes to use proprietary charging systems for the iPhone and Apple Watch.

Which Business Model?

Apple has internally debated several different business models for its car, including creating a self-driving fleet that would compete with the likes of Uber, Lyft, Cruise, and Waymo. The company has discussed an external design similar to what Canoo uses if it takes the fleet approach.

Getting to that point won’t be easy. Apple’s car project has suffered from development challenges, leadership struggles, layoffs, and delays over its seven-year history. Most of all, it has suffered from management indecision at the highest levels of the company. As Forrest Gump could tell Apple management, “If you don’t know where you are going, you aren’t likely to wind up there.”

Is Apple really going to operate a fleet of self-driving electric cars as part of a transportation as a service system? If so, will it have a dashboard that resembles an iPhone? And who will build it, service it, charge it, clean it, and wash it once in a while? The real question, however, is whether it be available by 2025? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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