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Apple Again Delays its Car Program


Apple’s secretive carmaking venture has yet again been delayed — this time to 2026 — and reportedly will be scaled back from its ambitious, earlier plans that included full Level 5 autonomy.

Apple CEO Tim Cook
Apple CEO Tim Cook once called self-driving vehicles “the mother of all AI projects.” It appears to be off the table for now.

Known inside the Silicon Valley tech giant by the codename Project Titan, senior company officials, including CEO Tim Cook, have so far provided only the vaguest hint of what’s in the works. But it is widely believed Apple has been targeting the development of an all-electric vehicle with full autonomy. Some believe the goal was to bring out a product that wouldn’t even offer conventional controls, such as a steering wheel or pedals.

But Apple apparently has come to the same conclusion as potential competitors — such as Ford which last month halted development of its own robotic vehicles — according to a report in Automotive News. It appears an eventual Apple car will still be all-electric but feature more conventional controls. It will permit limited hands-free operation on highways, the trade publication said, basing its report on “people with knowledge of the matter.”

Frequent detours

The Apple car has been in on-and-off development for more than a decade, though the tech company long downplayed such a program. Over the years it reportedly went through a variety of changes, Apple at one point in 2019 cutting hundreds of jobs, in the process raising questions about whether the company was giving up on the venture.

Apple VP Kevin Lynch
Kevin Lynch, Apple’s VP of technology, was pushing to get the Apple car ready by 2025. Now it appears 2026 is the new starting point.

“We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple,” a company spokesperson told CNBC at the time. “As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple.”

CEO Cook finally gave more insight into the Apple car’s new direction two years later, making it clear that a high level of self-driving capabilities was essential to the project.

“The autonomy itself is a core technology, in my view,” he said in an interview. “If you sort of step back, the car, in a lot of ways, is a robot. An autonomous car is a robot.”

Reality sets in

But, as a number of other automakers and test firms have been discovering, it’s far more difficult to reach Level 5 autonomy — where a vehicle can drive anywhere, anytime, without a human at least ready to take over under certain conditions.

Ford recently acknowledged the difficulty of reaching that goal, killing its Pittsburgh-based Argo AI subsidiary and ending a joint venture with Volkswagen.

The recognition that full autonomy isn’t yet feasible is causing Apple to not only rethink the goals of its vehicle program but also forcing a delay of the launch until 2026.

Desi Ujkashevic
The project’s seen a slew of top executives come and go, like Desi Ujkashevic, Global Director, formerly Ford’s Global director of Automotive Safety Engineering.

Setting more realistic goals

The tech giant isn’t abandoning self-driving capabilities entirely, but it appears it will offer a far more limited version of the technology. That would be more in line with the GM Super Cruise and Ford BlueCruise systems. They allow hands-free driving on roads that have been carefully mapped in high definition. And they require motorists remain at the ready to take over quickly, as needed.

The many changes the Project Titan has gone through has created turmoil within the development team, with frequent turnover among the ranks.

“Current leader Kevin Lynch has aimed to bring more stability and a focus on practical goals after years of priority changes and even some layoffs,” Automotive News said in a story released Wednesday. But the latest changes could create a new wave of challenges for Apple car team leaders.

A cheaper, less sophisticated vehicle

What happens now is uncertain. Until now, the plan called for the EV to start at around $120,000 and come to market by around 2024. The new report indicates that, without the hefty computing power needed for Level 5 autonomy, a base Apple car might now come in closer to $100,000. That would put it in line with a base Tesla Model S, a Mercedes-Benz EQS and the newest version of the Lucid Air.

The final specs for the revised Apple car should be ready by late 2024, with prototype testing to occupy the next year. Barring still more setbacks, Apple expects to have it in production by 2026.

More broadly, Apple is known to be looking for new revenue lines, having introduced few new products since the debut of its smartwatch. And it has been investing heavily in vehicle development, spending an estimated $1 billion annually on Project Titan.


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