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Following a somewhat dubious report yesterday that Apple could be planning to have its first self-driving car ready by next year, a more reliable source is now pegging the long-running Project Titan to still be on track for its original 2023–2025 timeline, while also adding some new information to the mix.
In one of the first mainstream reports we’ve heard about Apple’s automotive ambitions in years, Reuters shares the news that not only is Apple still moving forward with its own self-driving car technology, but it’s working toward having the first consumer model available in four years.
Citing people familiar with the matter, Reuters confirms that Apple’s plans are to produce an actual mass-market passenger vehicle — in stark contrast to reports from a couple of years ago that Apple was merely working with Volkswagen on autonomous shuttle vans to be used internally between its corporate campuses.
Of course, it’s fair to say that Project Titan has been down a long and winding road since rumours of Apple’s secretive automotive plans first began to surface back in 2014. Early concepts were ambitious and well out of the box of the normal thinking around car design, and while it seems very likely that Apple’s early goal was to produce a fully autonomous vehicle, the project hit more than a few roadblocks, leading to reports that it had killed development on the Apple Car in 2016, and had chosen to focus on an aftermarket in-car system instead that it could partner with other major car manufacturers to implement.
However, after some fairly significant staff changes, including bringing the legendary Bob Mansfield out of retirement to head up the project at a senior management level and the wooing of Doug Field back into the Apple fold from Tesla to lead the day-to-day operations, it began to look like an actual vehicle may have been back on the table after all, and by 2018 veteran Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo — who is more often right about these things than not — was predicting a 2023-2025 launch for an actual Apple Car.
These prognostications began to seem even more accurate when Apple continued building its Apple Car Dream Team made up of luxury car designers and leading automotive powertrain engineers like Dr. Michael Schwekutsch, Tesla’s former VP of engineering whose skills are focused exclusively on powertrains for electric vehicles — skills that would be useless to Apple unless it was actually building a full car.
Of course, building an autonomous electric car to the level of what Apple has clearly been trying to accomplish over the past few years isn’t just about design and engineering, but also being able to actually design something that the company can sell to enough consumers to justify its creation in the first place. As John Gruber recently noted at Daring Fireball, one of the reasons for Apple’s big “reset” back in 2016 was that their original concept was cost-prohibitive to build — to the point of being “embarrassingly expensive” as Gruber puts it.
After all, there are premium products that can get away with demanding higher prices because they actually are that much better, and then there are luxury technology products that are so leading edge that nobody except the extremely wealthy would even have the means to consider them. While almost all of Apple’s products fit into the first category, the company has basically never even dabbled in the latter one (the first-generation Gold Edition Apple Watch notwithstanding, which Apple created for an entirely different reason).
So far, most of the ideas of what an Apple Car could look like have been based on somewhat educated speculation, with information gleaned mostly from a variety of Apple patents that cover a wide gamut of ideas ranging from haptic seats and advanced sunroofs to retractable bumpers, AR windshields and even automated charging robots. Of course, Apple patents are just that — patents for ideas — and none of them suggest that Apple would implement any of this technology, much less all of it.
What we certainly do know, however, is that the Apple Car will feature an autonomous self-driving car system at its core, for which it will need advanced technology like LiDAR scanners that go well beyond what it’s added to the iPad Pro and iPhone 12 Pro this year, and recent news that Apple has shifted Project Titan into its Artificial Intelligence division suggests that it’s licked most of the hardware engineering problems and is now focusing much more solidly on the self-driving smarts.
New Battery Technology
One interesting note that the Reuters report adds to the mix is that Apple is apparently working on more advanced new battery technology that could set the Apple Car apart from the competition by allowing it to get more power into smaller and lighter cells — something that would ultimately translate into the holy grail of electric car design: more range.
Specifically, the report notes that Apple plans to use a unique “monocell” design that packs the individual cells in more closely, eliminating the pouches and modules that hold battery materials. The result is that more of the battery pack is actually focused on power storage, rather than inert material that contributes nothing but size and weight.
It’s next level,” the person said of Apple’s battery technology. “Like the first time you saw the iPhone.”Reuters
In addition, Apple is also said to be investigating a new type of lithium iron phosphate battery chemistry, also known as LFP, which is considered safer than other automotive batteries as it’s less prone to overheating.
Many Questions Remain
That said, Reuters acknowledges that many questions remain, and the idea of actually producing a vehicle of any kind of not a light undertaking, even for companies that aren’t trying to produce something as ambitious as Project Titan.
Firstly, it’s still unclear exactly how Apple plans to ramp up manufacturing for the vehicle when the time comes to actually go into production. While Reuters notes that Apple has spoken to potential partners such as Magna International, those talks haven’t really borne much fruit due to Apple’s plans not being clear enough right now.
Further, any contract automotive manufacturer that Apple would be likely to partner with might demand production volumes that aren’t realistic for something like the Apple Car — one source told Reuters that manufacturers would need a minimum production of 100,000 vehicles annual just to start, with the expectation that this would also quickly ramp up to even larger volumes.
That said, while almost all industry analysts agree that building the complex manufacturing network required to produce an actual vehicle would be a massive undertaking — leading some to suggest that Apple may still choose to license its technology to another carmaker such as BMW or Mercedes — others concede that Apple could very well be the only company on the planet with the resources to move so successfully into an entirely new major product area like this, with its multi-trillion dollar valuation, its ability to attract the cream of the crop among engineers, and its legendary history of supply chain and logistics management.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]