It started out simply enough. Apple established a Project Titan with the purported intention to build an electric car with self-driving capabilities. Well, the actual goal might not be at all simple to accomplish, but the facts appeared to be correct, along with hiring of up to 1,000 people, plus setting up a test facility near the corporate campus with which to design the new vehicles.
But over time the stories, understandably lacking any confirmation from Apple, underwent a few twists and turns. First came the report that the presumed project lead, Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer, had left the company. Not that he actually made any announcement, but the rumors had it that the project allegedly lacked a clear vision, and changes were necessary.
This summer, it was reported that the project had been delayed by a year and that dozens of people were being laid off. Originally it was expected that the alleged Apple Car might arrive by 2020, but now it appeared that 2021 was the modified target date. In addition, a new project leader took control in the person of former Apple hardware chief Bob Mansfield, who had actually retired from the company before returning to do special projects, or consulting chores, for Tim Cook.
The goals were also narrowed, according to some reports, to focus mainly on self-driving technology rather than designing a whole new vehicle. Supposedly Apple ran into a problem similar to the one faced when it considered building a smart TV a few years back. With so many auto makers busy focusing on self-driving and electric vehicle technology, how would Apple make a difference? Indeed, some regard Tesla Motors, and its unique approach to marketing and selling its vehicles, as the company that operated in the spirit of Apple.
Again nothing has been confirmed, although the existence of Project Titan, the fact that hundreds of former employees at major car companies, and the presence of Bob Mansfield in the leadership role, appeared credible. Certainly potential test vehicles might be spotted if it’s about designing a car, and if Apple actually submitted prototypes to government agencies for testing, the cat — or the car — would be out of the bag.
This week, the presumably secret Apple automotive project is once again in the news, with stories that Apple has been talking with McLaren Automotive, a UK-based manufacturer of high-end sports cars with prices soaring past a quarter of a million dollars, about buying a stake or the entire company. McLaren, famous for its Formula One race cars, also has high-end technology potentially related to autonomous driving, such as using a single device to manage the operations of the engine, transmission and electrical system. That might serve as the core of an advanced self-driving system if it can be perfected for mass production.
Now I hardly i think Apple wants to sell a few exotic sports cars per year for the well-heeled. Such an acquisition, should it occur, would be all about technology and manufacturing expertise. If Apple could manage to filter that expertise down to products that you could actually afford to buy, it might help jumpstart the project. As most of you know, Apple often acquires other companies strictly for technology, and many of the exclusive advantages of the iPhone and the iPad are due to those acquisitions. Remember that Siri and Touch ID are just two examples of features that arrived from such acquisitions, along with the A-series processors.
There are also published reports that Apple is also looking at a San Francisco startup, Lit Motors, which invented what is described as an electric self-balancing motorcycle. So could it be an Apple Cycle rather than an Apple Car? Regardless officials for all the companies involved are not commenting on whether or not they are having interactions with Apple of one sort or another. One expects such negotiations would be done under ironclad, legally defensible NDAs, and that official announcements of a purchase would be free of any incriminating details.
Even if the stories about McLaren and Lit Motors are essentially as reported, that still doesn’t necessarily reveal Apple’s end game. Apple didn’t buy Beats to sell fancy bass-heavy headphones either. But such acquisitions would definitely demonstrate Apple’s deep commitment to make something out of Project Titan. It would also serve to disprove the occasional rumor that Apple really wants to acquire Tesla Motors. Obviously it’s moving in a different direction, and it may well be that other companies will be acquired as needed over the next few years to bring project Title to fruition.
Even if the McLaren purchase occurs, Apple will probably continue to market the fancy cars and participate in racing to keep up the company’s tradition. But the end game would be something that Apple customers might actually be able to buy — or lease. If it’s still about autonomous driving technology, it would possibly be licensed to auto makers that agree to build vehicles that fit Apple’s design profile. I’m thinking something akin to Intel’s UltraBook designs for slim and light notebooks, but that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. As soon as Apple licenses technology to other companies, it looses control, which is very much against the company’s DNA. With CarPlay, it’s just presenting a subset of your iPhone’s interface in your car’s infotainment system, which merely conveniences Apple customers and provides a showcase for potential customers who might be along for the ride.
Then again, maybe it’s really about building a worldwide network of self-driving taxi cabs, an uber version of Uber.