At least not yet…
The last two weeks have brought a fresh flood of information on Apple’s Project Titan automobile project. Supposedly Apple is in talks with multiple automakers over potential manufacturing deals, and reliable sources such as Mark Gurman and Ming-Chi Kuo think a fully autonomous Apple Car could arrive as soon as 2025. What form or function that vehicle takes on is still anyone’s guess.
This happens every so often. In 2016, we heard that Project Titan was getting underway. In 2017, we were told Apple was moving people off the project and basically giving up. Later, the company was said to be back in the game, but shifting to autonomous driving systems and software. There were even reports at one point that Project Titan would be nothing more than an autonomous shuttle bus. However, that view changed when Apple went on a hiring spree, bringing in designers and engineers who work on other physical aspects of a vehicle.
So now the tech press is making its next collective round of guesses on what Apple is up to with automobiles. Will Apple make a consumer-facing car? If so, you can bet it will be extremely expensive. However, all high-end electric vehicles are at this point. Alternatively, is Apple making something different that will be focused on fully autonomous ride sharing and delivery? Is it possible this isn’t a consumer product at all?
Whatever anyone beyond a VERY small number of reliable sources tells you about an Apple Car, don’t put any stock in it yet. The people who might know something real only have vague details at this point and everyone else is just guessing, just like everyone has been doing since 2016. The twists and turns in the tech press narrative since Project Titan was first mentioned should be adequate proof of that.
There is nothing wrong with guessing and prognosticating. That’s all that any of us who don’t have sources can do. I do a lot of it myself. However, be wary of anyone who tells you what Apple is or isn’t doing with their automotive project, or what the end result will or won’t be. The truth is they have no idea. At least not yet.
One prevailing sentiment among people who cover Apple is that the company will only be willing to produce a car for direct sale to consumers. I understand that line of thinking. Selling consumer goods and services is what Apple is known for. Why would they bother with anything else? However, I think that’s too narrow a view to take with a product like this.
Apple hasn’t had any truly revolutionary product releases since the iPhone and iPad. They have certainly made some very successful products in the Apple Watch and AirPods lineup of earbuds and headphones, but neither is as groundbreaking as what Apple accomplished in smartphones and tablets. I think Apple’s longer running, behind the scenes projects focused on automotive tech and AR and VR are their attempts to duplicate that kind of groundbreaking success.
A truly groundbreaking product changes our relationship to that kind of device and the way that we think or feel about it. The way that we use it. There were smartphones before the iPhone. I owned several of them from 2004 to 2008. However, none of them did what the iPhone was able to. None fundamentally changed how people use their cell phones or what they expect from them. Even if you don’t use Apple products and can’t stand the iPhone, the Android phone you use today isn’t a Blackberry knockoff (which was the original plan for Android) because of the instant market impact of the iPhone.
Because of the shift away from the norm that comes with a groundbreaking product, I don’t think we can look at rumors of an Apple Car or their AR and VR devices through the same lens as current Apple products. I’m not predicting anything here, because I don’t think it’s any mystery that Apple is looking at a few different technologies as the next big thing in tech. Tim Cook even referred to fully autonomous driving systems as the “mother of all AI projects.”
So what is my point? Don’t dismiss the possibility that Apple is working on something beyond a fully autonomous electric vehicle for individual purchase. Just look at how quickly the company ramped up its interest in the fitness and medical fields as part of its Apple Watch business. While there is a consumer-facing device at its center, their research and development have gone far beyond the realm of a single product. I think it’s quite possible that they view transportation the same way.
The Apple of today is just as interested in selling us services as they are devices. A fully autonomous driving service that will take you anywhere you want to go within a certain range inside of a metro area could certainly change the way people think of cars and whether they really need to own one or not. Uber and Lyft have already proven that this idea has legs, but in a way that isn’t really sustainable as a long-term business. It’s too expensive for them to become profitable unless they can shift to autonomous driving fleets over the next decade.
Apple certainly isn’t alone in wanting to be the company at the center of this coming shift. Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services are coming at it from the service perspective. All of the major automotive manufacturers are looking into this from their end of the spectrum. Other tech companies like Google and Amazon are certainly pouring billions into autonomous driving as well, even if they are approaching it differently. Of course, Tesla has a major jump on all of the above because they’ve built up a line of vehicles and the software and research into autonomous driving from nothing. You could say that Elon Musk has already started to change the way people look at cars and driving.
However, the Teslas of today are more in line with the Palm Pilots that preceded the smartphone revolution. Musk is certainly more forward-thinking than the executives at Palm in the early 2000s, so he and Tesla will certainly have a major impact on where things go from here. He has infrastructure in place, including battery production and a network of charging stations. However, after years of work, Teslas still have quality and production issues and the rest of the automotive industry is now all-in on catching them. Apple also has the size, scale and buying power to potentially overcome their early lead.
The other advantage that Apple has, one that no other company has at their level right now, is control of the entire technology stack. Apple’s ability to customize and optimize processors and SoCs with its software is something no other tech company can match today. If they can buy and deal their way into being able to assemble and manufacture a vehicle to power with them, then they could produce something different from the rest of the industry.
With a guy like Mark Giannandrea at the head of AI and machine learning , I think they can get the software right, as well. I know he hasn’t fixed Siri in his time at Apple, but his team’s work on camera and photography enhancement took the company from falling well behind Google and Samsung to right back in the race almost overnight. I think he and his team will get around to Siri eventually, but their work in and around the rest of Apple’s software is impressive.
Right now, Apple has all of the building blocks necessary to pull off something more than a vehicle you can walk into an Apple Store, buy, and drive off the lot. They have the software and the ability to integrate it with custom chips. They have a formidable and proven leader at the head of their AI and machine learning efforts. They also have the money and reach to make the hires and deals necessary to design and build a vehicle. They even have the services and payments infrastructure to handle a broader ride-sharing initiative.
Apple has all of the building blocks in place to do something more than just build a car to sell to an individual. That doesn’t mean they are looking to try and change the world of automobiles with Project Titan. It’s entirely possible that their ambitions don’t go beyond selling an expensive car to wealthy Apple fans. However, ask yourself this- which product will bring in money from more people? I can’t help but think a broader service is the more profitable venture of the two. Who knows, maybe they will do both.
Either way, I don’t think we can dismiss any possible outcome of Project Titan four or more years from a product release. Right now, no one outside of Apple knows the details of their plans, so it’s better to not dismiss any possibility.