After seven years, an Apple car is still on the horizon
Minutes after the announcement this week that Doug Field, the former Tesla executive who led Apple’s auto project, was defecting from Ford, the Cupertino company called a bare-handed meeting.
Field, who explained he was joining the Detroit automaker for the chance to “try to make a difference”, was the latest in a long line of releases from Project Titan, Apple’s secret plan to build an autonomous car.
He was the fourth project leader to leave in seven years, and the team has bled three other senior executives in recent months. Staff were nervous as media speculated that Apple might unplug the car.
But in a half-hour briefing, Apple executives said there would be a reorganization, but no layoffs, according to two people present. On Thursday, Bloomberg announced that Kevin Lynch, who heads the Apple Watch and health projects, will take over from Project Titan. The car was still on the road.
Despite the turmoil, it was too early to end Apple’s seven-year effort to build a car, said Laurie Yoler, founding director of Tesla’s board of directors and former Zoox board member. .
“I know a lot of people who have been there in the past few months,” she said. “Not many, a dozen or so, but they’ve all been gone recently. They come from Waymo, Zoox and Airbus. They are really old people.
Car trials fall
Still, after all these years, Apple doesn’t seem any closer to launching a car. The company has never admitted the existence of Project Titan, although it is due to file reports on the number of kilometers traveled by its test cars in California.
These prototypes, usually white Lexus models with a set of sensors on the roof, drive frequently enough for Jean Bai, an architectural design photographer, to sit in front of Apple’s facilities in and around Cupertino and take pictures. Pictures.
But the 19,000 “autonomous miles” traveled by Apple cars last year is only a fraction of the 630,000 miles traveled by Alphabet’s Waymo car project in California. The number is also decreasing; it represents only a quarter of the total in 2018. Waymo also indicates that its vehicles have traveled about 30,000 miles on average between the interventions of its test pilots, against 145 miles for Apple.
Apple’s initial optimism for the project was clear in 2015, when CEO Tim Cook told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted people to have “an iPhone experience in their car.” He added: “It’s about trying to make your life outside the car and your life inside the car transparent.” At the time, the smartphone market seemed saturated and revenues were declining. Apple needed a new product.
But the iPhone maker isn’t the only company whose initial vision turned out to be more ambitious than realistic. Google’s Larry Page said the robotic axis could be “bigger than Google.” In 2016, Tesla’s Elon Musk called self-driving cars “essentially a problem solved” and predicted “full range. . . in less than two years ”.
In 2017, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg charmed a German auto show with this opening sentence: “I come with very good news: we are the only company in Silicon Valley that doesn’t build a car.
Apple’s advantage is unclear
But the promise of the autonomous vehicle was premature. Executives who have spent billions of dollars developing the technology are nowhere near recouping their investments. Some have blatantly failed: Uber and Lyft have each abandoned their plans in the past year.
“In 2010, when all of these programs were launched in robotics by tech companies, there was tons of pride,” said Angus Pacala, managing director of digital lidar group Ouster. “They were like, ‘We’re going to crush the auto industry, just like Nokia and BlackBerry.’ And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Today, the revolution seems more and more distant, while the advantages of Apple in the market are difficult to discern.
“I just don’t see where Apple will have a technological advantage,” said Arndt Ellinghorst, analyst at Bernstein. “It can only be autonomous, what the world is chasing after. Not having an edge in a market where it is incredibly difficult to make money is not a great proposition. “
Apple has supply chain expertise, an attractive brand, and arguably the greatest ability in the world to combine hardware with software and services. Yet very little on its product portfolio indicates that it could outperform Tesla in battery performance or beat Mercedes and BMW when it comes to interior design or large-scale manufacturing.
Recent patents issued suggest that the team is now working on all aspects of the driver’s experience, not necessarily on the car itself.
Just last month, Apple secured patents for outdoor lighting technology capable of displaying text, speed and light warnings; another for a safety system involving airbags which deploy from the roof of the vehicle and the passenger seat belt.
Another was stylish lighting in the vehicle guiding the passenger to charge an iPhone or put down their coffee in the dark. Other patents granted last month relate to visual sensors for autonomous driving, suspension systems and traffic notifications.
“No way Apple builds a car”
For Manuela Papadopol, a veteran of the automotive industry and managing director of Designated Driver, a start-up focused on remote car driving, everything indicates that Apple is reducing its ambitions of the vehicle to improving the digital cockpit and redefining the elements of the passenger experience. .
“There is 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 the automotive industry – not in the building of cars, but in the interior space. They could project augmented and virtual reality in the windows. This is where the opportunity lies.
Meanwhile, several people who left Project Titan said it has yet to choose a clear path forward. Incumbent automakers rarely seem intimidated by the iPhone maker invading their territory.
“I don’t really have the feeling that anyone who fears Apple in the [car] industry, ”said Sasha Ostojic, operating partner of venture capital group Playground Global and former engineer at Cruise, GM’s stand-alone unit.
“When I was running engineering at Cruise, I interviewed a group 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 know where it is going. We prefer to work on a serious program.
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