The New York Times reports that Apple has drastically scaled back its ambitions to build its own autonomous vehicle and will instead focus its efforts on developing a self-driving shuttle service using its own technology integrated with a commercial vehicle.
This isn't the first time reports have surfaced that Apple has reined in its own expectations for building an autonomous car to challenge the likes of Tesla and upend Detroit. Bloomberg reported last October that Apple had cut or reassigned hundreds of employees from a staff that had numbered around 1,000 people after deciding not to build its own car. But the Times story adds fascinating new details that peek behind the veil of Apple's car labs in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Among them: Apple is working on an autonomous shuttle service for employees. It's called PAIL, short for Palo Alto to Infinite Loop, the address of its six-building new spaceship headquarters campus in Cupertino, Calif., and it will use another company's vehicle to test its self-driving technology system. The company has been spotted using a Lexus RX450h SUV to test its technology. And when we last heard, Apple was leasing cars from Hertz to test its self-driving technology.
But it's a far cry from Apple's original vision to reinvent the driving experience, as the Times reports, citing five Titan project employees who spoke anonymously. Based on the following tidbits, we can only dream of an Apple-designed vehicle:
- Globe-shaped wheels — literally reinventing the wheel, as well as probably the very nature of how a car drives and navigates — to improve lateral movement.
- A cabin designed without a steering wheel or gas pedals.
- A new light and ranging detection sensor, or lidar, that could replace the awkward spinning cone atop the car with something more in line with Apple's preference for clean design.
- Motorized doors that could open and shut silently.
- Interior displays featuring virtual or augmented reality.
- And a "CarOS" operating system — though developers reportedly debated whether it should be based on Apple's Swift programming language or the industry-standard C++.
Apple's Titan project ran into trouble, The Times says, because of its size, lack of clear vision, shifting priorities and "arbitrary or unrealistic deadlines." Bloomberg, in its story last October, cited the company's difficulties cracking automotive supply chains, and the fact that many tech investors were wary of the auto industry's comparatively narrow profit margins.
In June, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg that the company was focused on developing autonomous, artificial-intelligence systems, including self-driving cars, but hinted at the project's difficulty.
"There are others," he said at the time, "and we sorta see it as the mother of all AI projects. It's probably one of the most difficult AI projects, actually, to work on. And so autonomy is something that's incredibly exciting for us, but we'll see where it takes us."
For now, we can only dream of the fantastical ways a design-forward company like Apple might reimagine the automobile. In the end, the company that put the iPhone — a sleek, powerful computer that can also place and receive phone calls — in your pocket might have just figured out how complicated building a car truly is.