Minutes after the news broke this week that Doug Field, the former Tesla executive who led Apple’s car project, was defecting to Ford, the Cupertino company’s venture called an all-hands meeting.
Field, who explained he was joining the Detroit carmaker for the chance “to try to make a difference”, was the latest in a long line of exits from Project Titan, Apple’s secretive plan to build a self-driving car.
He was the fourth head of the project to depart in seven years, and the team has bled three other senior executives in the past few months. Staff were jittery as the media speculated that Apple might pull the plug on the car.
But in a half-hour briefing, Apple executives said there would be a reorganisation, but no lay-offs, according to two people present. By Thursday, Bloomberg reported that Kevin Lynch, who has been leading Apple’s Watch and health projects, would take over at Project Titan. The car was still on the road.
Despite the turbulence, it was too early to call time on Apple’s seven-year effort to build a car, said Laurie Yoler, a founding board director at Tesla and a former board member at Zoox.
“I know many people who have gone there just in the last few months,” she said. “Not a huge number, a dozen or so, but they’ve all gone recently. They are from the likes of Waymo, Zoox and Airbus. These are really senior folks.”
Car testing falls
Nevertheless, after all these years, Apple seems no closer to launching a car. The company has never admitted to Project Titan’s existence, even though it has to file reports on how many miles its test cars drive in California.
These prototypes, usually white Lexus models with an array of sensors on the roof, drive frequently enough for Jean Bai, an architectural design photographer, to sit outside Apple facilities in and around Cupertino and snap photos of them.
But the 19,000 “autonomous miles” that Apple’s cars drove last year is just a fraction of the 630,000 miles completed by Alphabet’s Waymo car project in California. The number is also shrinking; it is just a quarter of the total in 2018. Waymo also states its vehicles travelled approximately 30,000 miles on average between interventions by its test drivers, compared to 145 miles for Apple.
The early optimism of Apple’s project was clear in 2015, when Tim Cook, chief executive, told a Wall Street Journal conference that he wanted people to have “an iPhone experience in their car”. He added: “That’s all about trying to make your life outside the car and your life inside the car be seamless.” At the time, the smartphone market looked saturated and revenues were falling. Apple needed a new product.
But the iPhone maker is not the only company whose early vision proved more ambitious than realistic. Larry Page of Google said that robotaxis could be “bigger than Google”. In 2016, Elon Musk of Tesla called self-driving cars “basically a solved problem” and predicted “complete autonomy . . . in less than two years”.
By 2017, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook operations chief, charmed a German car show with this opening line: “I come with very good news: we’re the only company in Silicon Valley that’s not building a car.”
Apple’s advantage is unclear
But the promise of the autonomous vehicle was premature. The leaders who have spent billions of dollars building the tech aren’t close to recouping their investments. Some have failed prominently: Uber and Lyft each hived off their projects in the past year.
“In 2010 when all these programmes got started in robotaxis by the tech companies, there was tons of hubris,” said Angus Pacala, chief executive of digital lidar group Ouster. “They were like, ‘We’re gonna steamroll the auto industry just like Nokia and BlackBerry’. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Today the revolution looks increasingly distant, while Apple’s advantages in the market are hard to discern.
“I just don’t see where Apple will have a technology edge,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, analyst at Bernstein. “It can only be in autonomous, which the world is chasing. Not having an edge in a market where it’s insanely hard to make money isn’t a great proposition.”
Apple has supply chain expertise, a desirable brand, and arguably the world’s foremost ability to combine hardware with software and services. Still, very little about its product portfolio indicates that it could surpass Tesla on battery performance or beat Mercedes and BMW when it comes to designing an interior or manufacturing at scale.
Recent patent grants give some hints that the team is now working on all aspects of the rider experience, not necessarily the car itself.
Last month alone Apple was granted patents for exterior lighting technology capable of displaying text, speed and light warnings; another for a safety system involving airbags that deploy from the vehicle’s roof and the passenger’s safety belt.
Another was for sleek in-vehicle illumination guiding the passenger to charge an iPhone or put their coffee down in the dark. Other patents granted last month concern visual sensors for autonomous driving, suspension systems, and traffic notifications.
‘No way that Apple is building a car’
For Manuela Papadopol, a car industry veteran and chief executive of Designated Driver, a start-up focused on operating cars remotely, all indications are that Apple is paring down its ambitions from the vehicle to enhancing the digital cockpit and redefining elements of the passenger experience.
“There’s no way on Earth that Apple is building a car,” she said.
“Don’t get me wrong: I think the opportunity for Apple is incredible in automotive — not in building cars, but in the interior space. They could project augmented and virtual reality into the windows. That’s where the opportunity lies.”
Meanwhile, several people who have departed Project Titan said it has not yet chosen a clear path forward. Incumbent carmakers rarely sound intimidated by the iPhone maker invading their turf.
“I don’t really get the sense anyone fears Apple in the [car] industry,” said Sasha Ostojic, operating partner at venture capital group Playground Global and a former engineer at Cruise, GM’s autonomous unit.
“When I ran engineering at Cruise I interviewed a bunch of people from Apple’s special products group” — where Titan is housed — “and most of them were disillusioned and said, ‘well, most of the research is directionless and we don’t really know where it’s headed. We’d rather work on a serious programme.’”