The Apple rumor mill has lots to say about any product that’s reportedly in the works in Cupertino, Calif. But the Apple car project — codenamed Project Titan and reportedly staffed by hundreds of Apple employees — is the subject of particularly intense speculation. And that’s despite the fact that the first Apple Car isn’t expected to launch until 2020 at the earliest. So what do we actually know about the so-called Apple Car? Read on to find out the story so far.
Apple car launch date
One of the most basic questions about the Apple car is when Apple plans to introduce the vehicle. A report from The Information indicated that the target launch date has been changed from 2020 to 2021. Explaining the delay, the report cited the January departure of Apple VP of Product Design Steve Zadesky, who led Apple’s electric car development efforts since 2014. His departure was regarded as one of several challenges that may have caused Apple to push the target launch date for the Apple car.
There are plenty of opinions on the timing of an Apple car launch. Tesla’s Elon Musk, for one, thinks that the car isn’t going to be ready by 2020. Musk also referred to the Apple Car as an open secret in the automotive industry. He explained, “It’s pretty hard to hide something if you hire over a thousand engineers to do it.” (Or if you have analysts, journalists, and industry sources watching your every move.)
As MacRumors notes, Apple seems to have another three to five years of research and development ahead of it. That means that the roadmap and launch timing for the Apple car could change significantly. Nonetheless, vehicle development is believed to be underway in Sunnyvale, Calif. The project, which was reportedly approved by Tim Cook in 2014, has recruited hundreds of engineers from companies including A123 Systems, Ford, GM, Nvidia, Samsung, and Tesla.
Apple car technology
It’s been widely reported that Apple has a team of employees working on creating an electric car — which may or may not have self-driving capabilities — at a facility near the company’s Cupertino headquarters. So far, surprisingly little is definitively known about the Apple car and the technology that will power it. However, word has it that early prototypes resembled a minivan. Rumors have thus far disagreed on whether the Apple car will be autonomous or if the first version of the vehicle might eschew those capabilities.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple executive Bob Mansfield is now overseeing the electric car project. Bloomberg reports that under Mansfield, the project has shifted in strategy to prioritize the development of an autonomous driving system. Nonetheless, Apple is reportedly “not abandoning efforts to design its own vehicle.” That approach to the technology should leave options open for Apple to potentially partner with or acquire an established car maker, rather than building a car itself.
Bloomberg reports that Apple is moving forward with a “dual track that could still result in building its own car.” In doing so, the company has “continued to raid auto companies for engineers with expertise in designing vehicle manufacturing systems.” Apple has also “hired two Ford engineers in the past year with experience building aluminum-bodied vehicles.” Those details seem to support the larger assessment that Apple is developing both a car and the software to power it. But they also mean that we’re a long way off from knowing anything specific about what shape the Apple car may take or what kind of technology will power it.
Apple car infrastructure
Reuters reports that Apple has laid the groundwork for the infrastructure surrounding the Apple car project. This includes efforts to respond to “a key shortcoming of electric vehicles: ‘filling up’ the batteries. A shortage of public charging stations, and the hours wasted in charging a car, could be an opportunity for Apple.” Apple has reportedly talked with charging station companies about their technology. But it’s unclear so far whether the company would want its own proprietary technology or would want to design a system that’s compatible with other companies’ offerings.
It’s also been reported that Apple has looked for facilities to test its vehicle prototypes. Additionally, the company talked with the DMV about vehicle regulations. MacRumors reports that Apple is planning to spend $10 billion on research and development in 2016, up 30% since 2015. That uptick in spending means that the company is likely strategizing about a long-term pivot beyond the iPhone and toward another product like the Apple car. The Apple car reportedly began with a team of about 200 employees, but Apple has been recruiting employees since early 2015. The goal was reportedly to have more than 1,000 employees working on the project.
Apple’s hires have included researchers who specialize in battery technology, those with experience in autonomous systems, engineers with expertise in automotive bodies, and employees who have worked on electric cars. Other hires have brought expertise in driver assistance systems, autonomous vehicles, digital license plates, and charging technology to the Apple car project.
However, the New York Times recently reported that Apple has “shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees.” Apple employees were told that the layoffs were part of a “reboot” of the Apple car project. Nonetheless, the company reportedly has “a number of fully autonomous vehicles in the middle of testing, using limited operating routes in a closed environment.”
Apple car partners
It’s been rumored that Apple plans to collaborate with an established car manufacturer to produce the Apple car. After talks with Daimler and BMW were reported to have fallen through, Magna Steyr was cited as another potential manufacturing partner. Chrysler Fiat is partnering with Alphabet, Google’s parent company, on its self-driving cars and has said that it would be open to partnering with Apple as well.
MacRumors reports that Apple’s talks with Daimler and BMW ended thanks to disagreements over who would lead the project and which company would have ownership over the data generated by consumer usage of the Apple car. Apple is reportedly “holding out for deep iCloud integration.” Despite rumors that Apple was considering using the BMW i3 as the basis for the Apple car, Apple’s talks with BMW “fell apart” after just a few months. It was reported at the time that discussions between Apple and BMW could resume at a later date. However, Apple was also said to be in talks with Magna Steyr, and there was no indication that those talks had come to an end.
It’s been assumed that the Apple car will interact with the iPhone and other Apple services. Deep iPhone integration is also expected, which could help Apple to continue selling iPhones even as the smartphone market becomes more mature and more saturated. Apple’s desire for deep integration of iCloud has reportedly caused negotiation difficulties with both BMW and Daimler. It may continue to be an issue in future discussions with other potential manufacturing partners.
Apple car strategy
Tim Cook has yet to say much about the Apple car. That’s unsurprising given Apple’s secretive nature. But The Verge reports that Cook has been offering more hints “that the Apple Car might possibly be a real thing.” At the very least, Cook is expertly fueling the fire under speculation about the Apple car. At a shareholder meeting, Cook told attendees, “Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve. . . it was so exciting.” He added, “You weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs. Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.”
Cook hasn’t addressed Apple car rumors directly. But he did explain that the company doesn’t have to spend large amounts of money to explore a potential new area. In his words, Apple becomes “committed” to a project once it begins spending significant amounts of money on tooling and other complex processes. According to Cook, a hiring spree may not quite qualify as a commitment to a project. He explained, “We explore things with teams of people. And that’s a part of being curious.”
Apple’s interest in developing a car reportedly dates back to before the original iPhone. Steve Jobs considered building an Apple car, but ultimately pursued the iPhone instead. Details about Apple’s development efforts for an Apple vehicle began to surface in 2015, when an Apple van was spotted in northern California with a camera rig.
That discovery sparked speculation about a Google Street View-style service or an autonomous car. Apple said that the vans were related to a mapping project. But investigations into Apple’s plans led journalists to the discovery that Apple was recruiting experts in automotive technology and vehicle design, and that the company was working on creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle.