Is Apple Canning the Electric Car it Never Publicly Discussed?

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 27: The Apple Store, Upper West Side is shown July 27, 2016 in New York City. On Tuesday, Apple reported a steep slump in revenue and profit, but beat analyst projections. The maker of the iPhone and iPad reported third-quarter profit sliding 27 percent to $1.42 per share, according to published reports. Analysts had expected $1.39 per share, according to the reports. Apple's share price today jumped on forward guidance from the company.

The Apple Store | Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Project Titan may be the worst-kept secret in the automotive world. It is, of course, the hush-hush division of Apple tasked with building an autonomous, electric car.

Or at least it was. A new series of layoffs suggest that the company may be having second thoughts, and it may instead follow the lead of its chief rival, Google.

The Apple logo is displayed on a screen at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference presentation at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California, on June 13, 2016. / AFP / GABRIELLE LURIE (Photo credit should read GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Apple logo | Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

A little backstory

Google began working on its autonomous car roughly a decade ago, with the first prototypes arriving in 2009. Since then, the company has made a great deal of progress, racking up millions of miles on roads and test tracks, with precious few accidents.

However, this time last year, rumors began circulating that Google wasn’t interested in building cars itself–at least not on any grand scale–and would rather just build autonomous car software. An alleged partnership with Ford gave some credence to those rumors.

People take their seats ahead of Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference presentation at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California, on June 13, 2016. / AFP / GABRIELLE LURIE (Photo credit should read GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Apple event | Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

Apple, meanwhile, is a relatively new entrant in the field. Word of Project Titan only began circulating in early 2015. Though Apple has steadfastly refused to admit that it’s working on a car, numerous reports have discussed the company’s poaching of battery engineers; its conversations with the California DMV about testing autonomous vehicles; and even the supplier that’s been tasked to build the alleged iCar.

Though such rumors haven’t been substantiated, they’ve seemed thoroughly believable. Why?

1. Apple is increasingly disinterested in conventional computers.

2. Apple is increasingly interested in new gadgets (e.g. tablets, wearables).

3. Apple is also very interested in dominating dashboards via its CarPlay infotainment software.

And just as importantly:

4. Apple is ferociously proprietary. It would never develop open-source software the way that Google did with Android. It prefers the “walled garden” approach to technology, building not just software, but also the devices on which it runs. That’s created a very consistent user experience and hordes of eager fans.

Considering the reliable rumors about Apple’s autonomous electric car project and its history with hardware, it was only natural to assume that Apple would develop its own vehicle rather than licensing its software to other automakers.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 9: Apple CEO Tim Cook gestures on stage during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Apple Inc. announced the new MacBook as well as more details on the much anticipated Apple Watch, the tech giant's entry into the rapidly growing wearable technology segment as well

Apple CEO Tim Cook | Stephen Lam/Getty Images

New developments

Over the summer, Apple hired software expert Dan Dodge, formerly of Blackberry. Insiders reported that, although Apple wasn’t giving up on its plans to develop an actual car, the hiring of Dodge signaled greater focus on autonomous vehicle software rather than hardware.

Apple lurched further in the direction of Google’s suspected software-only model late last week. That’s when reports began circulating that Apple had laid off dozens of employees working on Project Titan.

Other Apple employees have been forbidden from speaking to the press about the layoffs, and Apple reps haven’t issued a public statement. However, a source familiar with the matter says that the layoffs are part of a “reboot” of Project Titan.

What this means in practical terms remains to be seen. Could Apple really be considering licensing its autonomous car software to automakers like, say, Fiat Chrysler? That would seem very uncharacteristic–though in fairness, CarPlay is licensed software, too, so maybe Apple’s turning over a new leaf?

Stay tuned: we’ll update as more rumors and speculation filter in.

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