In 2015 we were all subjected to Apple Van mania sweeping the web attributing the vans to a future autonomous Apple car. It was nuts and last June it was a relief to report that Apple finally set the story straight because the rumors were getting completely out of control about the vans being associated with an autonomous vehicle. In August of last year we posted two reports on the matter. The first was titled "Are the New Round of Car Rumors Believable?" and the second titled "Proof is Mounting that Apple's Project Titan is about the Development of an Advanced Driver Assistance System." There's no denying that Apple's engineers had been working on underlying technology related to future vehicles for years because they're on record with a series of patents that were presented in our noted report above.
Shortly thereafter the rumor mill went into high gear and all out for Project Titan being about an autonomous vehicle. We followed a few of the rumors that were from the top news sites like the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Reuters. Stories about Apple giving the green light to triple Project Titan's staff, that Apple ended talks with BWM and Daimler over new vehicle cooperation and that Apple had a secret Titan team in Germany.
Then in early 2016 the surprising news came to light that Steve Zadesky, head of Project Titan was leaving and speculation began that the project was in trouble. In July Apple appointed no-nonsense Bob Mansfield to head Project Titan who was reportedly taking the project in a new direction by prioritizing the development of an autonomous driving system, exactly what we reported on back in August 2015 as noted earlier. Of course the door was still open a crack for a future car, but Mansfield wanted the Project Titan team to first focus on the heart of the project which was towards an advanced driver assistance system.
Late yesterday the New York Times reported that three sources close to the matter confirmed to them that Apple was indeed rethinking Project Titan. "Apple has shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees, according to three people briefed on the move who were not allowed to speak about it publicly.
Apple employees were told that the layoffs were part of a 'reboot' of the car project, the people briefed on it said. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.
Apple started looking seriously into building an electric car about two years ago. It expanded the project quickly, poaching experts in battery technology and so-called machine vision, as well as veterans from the automobile industry.
The team also pulled in staff members from other divisions across Apple, growing to more than 1,000 employees in about 18 months. But as the project grew rapidly, it encountered a number of problems, and people working on it struggled to explain what Apple could bring to a self-driving car that other companies could not, according to the people briefed on the project.
Apple has also made some headway in the space. The company has a number of fully autonomous vehicles in the middle of testing, using limited operating routes in a closed environment, according to people briefed on the company's plans. Like other companies in the space, that technology is likely a number of years away from seeing mainstream consumer use, they added." For more on this, see the full New York Times report here.
An interesting and random point in the NYTimes report was that "Tesla has a self-driving feature within its cars that has come under scrutiny in recent months after a fatal accident was connected to its use."
In July we posted a report titled "BMW, Intel, Mobileye Announcements Live," wherein we presented the live event about the 'iNext Car' and still have the video covering it. I also noted in that report that the Tesla tragedy was the elephant in the room that was a drag on the event because the Tesla incident happened the day before the big live event. One of the companies behind the Tesla system was also behind the new BMW autonomous vehicle initiative being announced. Tesla later ended the partnership with Mobileye over the deadly crash caused by a flaw in the autonomous system.
The Tesla tragedy really put a big question mark into the whole autonomous driving craze. I have to admit, the autonomous driving experience was never one that interested me in the least. It's a feature I'd only use lightly like I use cruise control. But any driver knows that at high highway speeds it only takes a second for something to go wrong and depending on any machine to make the right decision at the right time is something I'll never trust in my lifetime. Inner-city cab rides sounds like a real market but trusting a car to make lane changes and avoid accidents at high speed is, for many, not something of great interest.
With that said, Apple's big billion dollar investment in Didi Chuxing made sense for opening the door to Apple Pay because the service delivered 11 million rides a day – Ka-Ching! But it was also an open door to a mass market to test out various vehicle technologies. The President of Didi Chuxing stated on a conference call at the time that the deal would benefit each other "on product, technology, marketing, and many other levels."
This is one of the key markets where Apple's focus with Project Titan could still pay off. Taxi cabs, unlike consumer vehicles, have a high turnover. There's no doubt that Didi and Uber are thinking about moving into autonomous cabs as Uber's first self-driving fleet arrived in Pittsburgh in August.
For now, Apple's Project Titan is shifting gears away from making a vehicle to refocusing their energies on such things as an advanced driver assistance system and beyond. While the dream of the iCar was popcorn for our minds, perhaps reality is now setting in and refocusing on the possible is at hand.