You’ve heard the rumours: Apple is trying to revolutionise the car, or at least that’s what all the leaks and rumours indicate. And rather than being a completely autonomous vehicle in development, rumours suggest it will be a passenger vehicle for people to buy.
Several reports from the past few years claimed that Apple is not only poaching former Tesla employees and hiring automotive experts, but also secretly started up a research lab filled with hundreds of Apple employees working on a project codenamed Titan, although it later made a swathe of redundancies from the project. However things seem to have been revived to a significant extent as you’ll read.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is Project Titan?
- Project Titan is an effort to develop autonomous driving systems
- It began as an electric car project
Apple began working on “Project Titan” some time in 2014 and at one point had nearly 1,000 employees developing an electric vehicle at a secret lab near its Cupertino headquarters.
The project has been cursed, if you will, with leadership drama and other problems, which led to Apple pausing it and laying off hundreds of employees. In 2016 it redeployed long-time executive Bob Mansfield to lead the effort. Mansfield transitioned Apple’s focus to making an autonomous driving system.
While the leadership of Titan has moved to Giannandrea’s AI and machine learning group, rumours persist of Apple launching a Tesla-like car in 2024.
While some says Apple is just developing self-driving technology, others still maintain that there a car in development, reporting that Apple has been establishing supply chain contacts. It’s difficult to be sure either way, although naturally, any car that Apple launched would use all the self-driving tech being developed. And in December 2020, Reuters cited two people it had spoken to about the project. They suggested an Apple vehicle will be in production by 2024.
Hyundai confirmed it was in discussion with Apple on autonomous tech before clarifying its position and saying that Apple was in discussion with other companies, too.
What autonomous tech is Apple developing and testing?
- Work to develop the operating system in Canada
- Testing also took place on Canadian roads
- In 2019 Apple bought Drive.ai
Apple apparently has several teams working on different parts of the software. There’s a team in Canada developing the base operating system, for instance. Apple was also granted a permit in 2017 from the California DMV to test self-driving vehicles on public roads using several 2015 Lexus RX450h SUVs leased from Hertz.
Apple equipped several of the Lexus SUVs with a range of different sensors running its self-driving software. It’s also working on a self-driving shuttle service designed to transport employees between Apple’s offices in Silicon Valley.
In June 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed Apple is focusing on autonomous systems and suggested the work could be used for other applications beyond cars. “Autonomous systems can be used in a variety of ways – a vehicle is only one, but there are many different areas of it. And I don’t want to go any further with that,” Cook explained.
In June 2019 we found out for sure that Apple was still keen on autonomous movement because it bought Drive.ai, a startup that had been running pilot programmes of autonomous vehicles in Texas. The company ceased operation, but Apple has taken over the vehicles and engineers.
Also according to analysts Morgan Stanley, Apple will spend nearly $19 billion on research and development in 2020, equating to around a fifth of the total R&D spend across the auto industry (around $100 billion). Intriguing indeed. We’ve since found out that Apple posted hundreds of jobs during 2020, some of which specified automotive work.
A timeline of Apple automotive rumours
All the latest rumours around Apple’s car project.
23 January 2021 – Apple posts 300 job listings
Analytics firm GlobalData spotted that Apple posted over 300 jobs in 2020, including for “key roles that indicate working on battery power management, road safety, and car experience”. These were apparently all for new hires within Apple’s Special Project Group, or SPG, a special unit at the Cupertino-baed company that only works on scalable, innovative projects.
8 January 2021 – Is Apple developing a self-driving electric car with Hyundai?
(Pocket-lint) – Apple is reportedly in talks with Hyundai to produce an autonomous electric vehicle. The Korea Economic Daily first reported their “early stage” discussions on Thursday. Hyundai later confirmed the development to Bloomberg, saying: “Apple and Hyundai are in discussion, but as it is at early stage, nothing has been decided.” But then Hyundai further clarified the statement, telling CNBC: “We understand Apple is in discussion with a variety of global automakers, including Hyundai Motor.”
22 December 2020 – Reuters reports Apple will make a passenger car by 2024 with ‘next-level’ battery tech
Reuters spoke to two people close to Project Titan and reports that the Apple car will be in production by 2024 with a “next level” battery technology with a reduced cost and increased range. For the avoidance of doubt, the sources say the vehicle will be a passenger car initially for the mass market.
09 December 2020 – Reports of Apple establishing car supply chain surface
A report from Digitimes suggests that Apple has established a car factory and is establishing suppliers. There’s the suggestion that TSMC will be involved for self-driving car chips. The component industry, reportedly, says that the Apple car will be similar to Tesla and that the timeline would suggest a 2024-25 launch.
08 December 2020 – Car unit now lead by AI chief
A report from Bloomberg details that the self-driving car unit has moved under the control of John Giannandrea, Apple’s artificial intelligence executive.
21 May 2020 – Apple will look to control every aspect of its autonomous car tech
According to a Morgan Stanley research note Apple will “need to control the design, the guts and the experiences and services on top of the platform.” So does that mean it’ll develop a whole vehicle itself? Probably not, but the potential is there.
21 April 2020 – Apple files a patent for window-tinting tech
Maybe relevant, maybe not, but Apple has filed a patent for adjusting the tint of windows in “vehicles and buildings” using several layers within the glass. Apple makes several references to vehicles in the patent filing.
26 June 2019 – Apple is still working on self-driving tech
Apple bought Drive.ai, a startup that’s been running pilot programs of autonomous vehicles in Texas. While Drive.ai ceased its own operations, Apple now has Drive.ai’s fleet of autonomous cars and other assets including engineers.
10 August 2018 – Former Tesla lead engineer now works on Project Titan
The re-employment of Tesla’s Doug Field could mean Apple Car plans are very much back on the front burner. Field left Apple in 2013, to work with Tesla and was in charge of Model 3 production at the electric car firm.
15 June 2018 – Apple hires Waymo engineer
Apple has hired a high-profile senior engineer of Google/Alphabet’s Waymo self-driving vehicle effort in a move that signals Apple’s development of autonomous efforts.
16 May 2018 – Apple has 62 self-driving vehicles in California
In May 2018 Apple had 62 vehicles and 87 drivers available to test autonomous vehicles, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) said in response to questions from macReports. The move follows on from other reports earlier in the year.
15 November 2017 – Apple says self-driving car software improves obstacle detection
12 June 2017 – Apple working with Hertz on testing
Apple is working with Hertz on testing and managing its self-drive test fleet – Apple reportedly hired Lexus SUVs from Hertz fleet management.
5 June 2017 – Tim Cook says Apple is focused on autonomous driving systems
Tim Cook says Apple is focused on autonomous driving systems in an interview with Bloomberg. “We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” Cook said in his most detailed comments yet on Apple’s automotive plans. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.”
4 November 2015 – Fadell talks about Apple’s car approach
Tony Fadell, who is known as the “father of the iPod”, appeared on Bloomberg TV to discuss his time at Apple. During the interview, he revealed that he spoke with former Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2008 about how Apple could approach a car project.
But Apple didn’t have enough resources for such a project then. Fadell explained: “We had a couple walks, and this was in 2008, about if we were to build a car, what would we build? […] We would be looking at what would a dashboard be, what would seat be, how would you fuel it or power it, but at the end it was always like ‘We are so busy, we are so constraint’. You know. It would be great to do it, but we can’t.”
19 October 2015 – Startup blames Apple for poaching talent
Electric motorcycle startup Mission Motors ceased operations, and it blamed Apple for grabbing up its key talent, according to Reuters. Apple poached six engineers from the San Francisco-based startup but never attempted to acquire Mission Motors outright. The engineers reportedly specialised in electric drive systems and battery algorithms for charging and cooling.
21 September 2015 – Beefing up the team
Apple reportedly spent more than a year investigating whether an Apple Car project was even feasible. The company must’ve thought it was worth exploring some more, because, according to The Wall Street Journal, project leaders tripled the so-called Apple Car team to 600-plus people. Apple was thought to be ramping up efforts to build an electric car and even set a target ship date for 2019.
18 September 2015 – Will Apple test in California?
According to The Guardian, Apple had a meeting with California autonomous driving officials in August 2015. This was thought to have followed an enquiry into acquiring a disused military base with lots of roads for autonomous car testing. Apple also hired an engineering program manager – something that usually happens at the company when a project is ready to leave the lab.
14 August 2015 – Apple seeks locations for testing
Apple was looking for locations to test a self-driving car, according to The Guardian, which said it learned this information through a public records act request. In one of the emails obtained through the request, an Apple engineer asked GoMentum, a 5,000-acre former naval base, for “an understanding of timing and availability for the space.” Apple also asked for a layout/photos of the grounds.
20 July 2015 – Apple recruits industry experts
Apple recruited automotive technology and vehicle design experts – including vehicle dynamics engineers – to work at its new “top-secret research lab”, according to The Financial Times. Then, The Wall Street Journal claimed Apple hired Doug Betts, who once served as the senior vice president of the Chrysler Group, where he was the global head of operations leading product service and quality.
Additionally, Apple had hired former Tesla vice president of vehicle engineering Chris Porritt, who used to be Aston Martin’s chief engineer. Apple hired also Paul Furgale, the deputy director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Autonomous Systems Lab. Apple was seeking even more experts with robotics and machine experience, too, with Furgale supposedly recruiting both students and researchers
19 February 2015 – Did Apple meet BMW?
In another report from Reuters, it was revealed that electric-car battery maker A123 Systems was suing Apple for aggressively poaching its top engineers since June 2014. These engineers were apparently helping Apple build out a large-scale battery division. Manger Magazine even reported that Apple had met with BMW because it wanted to use the i3 vehicle as the basis of its own electric car.
13 February 2015 – Recruits to work in secret lab
The Financial Times added to the choir by reporting that a team of Apple employees were researching automotive products in a new research lab at a top-secret location near Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. The team was being led by experienced managers from Apple’s iPhone unit. The Wall Street Journal weighed in on all the speculation, specifically adding that Apple was making an electric vehicle codenamed Titan.
9 February 2015 – Apple employee says it will give Tesla ‘a run for its money’
An unnamed Apple employee told Business Insider that Apple was working on something that will “give Tesla a run for its money.” Apple and Tesla were also trying to recruit top-level employees from each other, according to Bloomberg Business, though, at the time, Tesla was winning the battle, by reportedly nabbing at least 150 former Apple employees. Musk was also publicly bragging about it.