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It looks like at least one of Jony Ive’s early visions for the Apple Car could be coming true after all, with new reports suggesting that Apple’s ambitious vehicle project is now focused solely on creating a fully autonomous driving experience.
Among the revelations that followed the departure of Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s legendary Chief Design Officer, two years ago was a report of several early concept prototypes he came up with. Some of these were pretty out there, including one made entirely from wood and leather. One common thread among them all, though, was that I’d envisioned a vehicle that would be controlled entirely by Siri voice commands and wouldn’t include a steering wheel.
Interestingly, a new report from Mark Gurman at Bloomberg suggests that this could be precisely the direction Apple is heading in — a self-driving car so that’s autonomous it won’t need any of the usual driving controls.
Over the past several years, Apple’s car team has gone down many different roads since we first heard about it in 2015. At one point, it looked like Apple had scrapped its ambitions for a full vehicle to focus on self-driving car systems instead.
By 2018, however, it looked like Apple had indeed gone back to work on a full vehicle. A series of hires substantiated this in early 2019 and later included a leading electric powertrain designer and executive from Tesla and senior industrial designers from luxury car companies like Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar & Land Rover. Apple even snatched a VP of design away from Porsche.
None of these folks would have any reason to join Apple except to build an actual vehicle, and news earlier this year that Apple has been actively discussing manufacturing partnerships pretty much guarantees that we’re talking about a physical car here.
‘Chasing a Holy Grail’
However, in typical Apple fashion, it looks like the company isn’t content to merely do what everybody else is already doing. It wants to Think Different when it comes to the Apple Car, and it’s pulling out all the stops to do so.
In trying to master self-driving cars, Apple is chasing a holy grail within the industry. Tech and auto giants have spent years on autonomous vehicles, but the capabilities have remained elusive.Mark Gurman
Apple already has one of the best Artificial Intelligence teams on the planet, especially since hiring Google’s former head of AI to become its Senior VP of Machine Learning and AI Strategy. As amazing as the Neural Engine capabilities in Apple’s A-series chips are, it’s fair to say that all of these AI experts have to be up to something much bigger.
According to Gurman, something bigger is a fully autonomous self-driving car that would completely redefine the way we’ve thought about motor vehicles for the past hundred years.
Apple’s ideal car would have no steering wheel and pedals, and its interior would be designed around hands-off driving. One option discussed inside the company features an interior similar to the one in the Lifestyle Vehicle from Canoo Inc., an upstart in the EV industry. In that car, passengers sit along the sides of the vehicle and face each other like they would in a limousine.Mark Gurman
Gurman says that Apple has explored unique seating options where everybody sits around the sides and faces each other, with a large iPad-like infotainment touchscreen in the middle, kind of like a meeting room or living room arrangement on wheels.
Apple has also reportedly discussed including some kind of emergency takeover mode, which makes sense since it’s likely going to have a hard enough time getting approval to drive on public roads as it is.
Significantly, Gurman’s sources have said that Apple has reached a “key milestone” in the underlying self-driving car system, and it’s already completed most of the work on the processor that will be shipped in the Apple Car.
Gurman adds that the new chip for the Apple Car is “the most advanced component that Apple has developed internally,” pushing Apple’s AI capabilities to their very limits. In fact, unlike Apple’s A-series and M-series chips, the Car chip is made up almost entirely of neural processors. It’s expected to run so hot that the company will need to develop a sophisticated cooling system for it.
Sources say Apple plans to start deploying the new processor and updated self-driving sensors into its test fleet of 69 Lexus SUVs that are already roaming the highways in California.
The Apple car team is also focusing heavily on safety features, with plans to build even stronger safeguards than what Tesla and Waymo have been working on, including multiple layers of backup systems that can kick in to mitigate potential failures.
A ‘Very Aggressive’ Timeline
Not only is Apple shooting for the moon on the capabilities of the Apple Car, but it’s also still pushing to have it ready for 2025 — a timeline that some of Apple’s team members see as very aggressive.
It looks like Apple is pulling out all the stops to make this happen, pulling in even more engineering talent from across the industry. This includes such luminaries as CJ Moore, who formerly led Tesla’s self-driving software efforts, along with a climate system expert from Volva, a manager from Daimler Trucks, multiple battery systems engineers from several carmakers, a sensor engineer from GM, and many more.
However, the car team’s leadership also underwent a considerable shakeup this year. High-profile Apple Watch exec Kevin Lynch quietly shifted over to the car team only weeks before project chief Doug Field left Apple for Ford.
The reasons for Field’s departure were a bit of a mystery, but as we observed at the time, it didn’t seem like a coincidence that it came only months after Project Titan had shifted into Apple’s AI Division following the retirement of the legendary Bob Mansfield.
Some of Gurman’s sources have confirmed the connection, with suggestions that Field was “irked” about reporting to Apple’s SVP of AI, John Giannandrea, after Mansfield’s departure.
Mansfield and Field had a working relationship at Apple that went back well over a decade, since Bob Mansfield served as the Senior VP of Hardware Engineering until his first retirement in 2012, and during that time, Field worked under him as VP of Mac hardware engineering before departing for Tesla in 2013.
However, Tim Cook personally called Bob Mansfield back to Apple in 2014 to head up a secretive “special projects” division, and by 2016 it was pretty clear that he had come out of retirement to oversee Project Titan. It was undoubtedly Mansfield who lured Field back to Apple in 2018 to handle the project’s day-to-day operations.
Kevin Lynch’s assignment to the team this past summer suggests that Apple’s most senior execs already knew of Field’s plans and were lining Lynch up to take over upon the former head’s departure. As Gurman notes, however, this makes Lynch the fifth executive to take charge of the project in the past seven years, which is a rate of turnover that’s very rare for a company like Apple.
Notably, however, Lynch is still reporting directly to Jeff Williams, Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, rather than AI boss John Giannandrea. Williams and Lynch were notably responsible for the success of the Apple Watch, and many see this shift as a good sign for Project Titan, especially now that the Apple Car is getting ready to hit the streets.
[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.]