Having mostly perfected computers of various shapes and sizes, it is compelling to imagine Apple’s head of design, Jony Ive, now crafting a minimalist dream car with a revolutionary user experience.
But according to several recent reports, Apple’s secret automotive project seems to have some issues.
“Dozens of employees” in Apple’s car project “have departed in recent weeks,” the FT reports. The company has had more than 1,000 people working on its so-called “Project Titan,” but “it has struggled to make progress,” according to the New York Times, noting that a series of layoffs was part of a “reboot.”
Under its new boss, returning veteran Apple executive Bob Mansfield, the project has shifted “from an emphasis on designing and producing an automobile to building out the underlying technology for an autonomous vehicle,” the NYT’s Daisuke Wakabayashi and Brian X. Chen report.
Apple is “not abandoning efforts to design its own vehicle,” Bloomberg had reported in late July. “That leaves options open should the company eventually decide to partner with or acquire an established car maker, rather than build a car itself,” Mark Gurman and Alex Webb wrote.
To be sure, Apple has many skills that seem potentially useful here.
A self-driving electric car is basically a computer on wheels with a big battery and a bunch of digital eyes and data to analyze.
Meanwhile, Apple is one of the world’s top camera, chip-design and computer companies. Even if only loosely relevant here, the iPhone’s camera has been a particularly strong example of how Apple integrates hardware and software a level above its competition. The new iPhone 7 camera’s image processor performs more than 100 billion operations in 25 milliseconds, the company boasted this past week while unveiling it.
Apple is also expanding its mapping operations and has made progress in running large-scale cloud services. Its CarPlay software, a partnership with many top carmakers, is a good study into how people interact with in-car computers and user interfaces. And it is “sticking with its research into advanced batteries … and continues to hire battery technicians,” Quartz’s Steve LeVine reports.
Plus, an Apple car would almost certainly look cool and be both fun to use and a status symbol — not insignificant selling points.
It’s probably too early to tell what all of this means, especially with limited visibility. This car-of-the-future stuff is hard, as Google’s struggles — and Tesla’s — also confirm. And Apple is known for playing the long game when it’s serious about something.
Still, these reports don’t make it sound like the Apple/Jony Ive dream car is a certainty, if it ever was. And just making the “underlying technology” for someone else’s self-driving cars forever doesn’t seem like a particularly Apple-like project. So we’ll see.
An Apple rep did not respond to a request for comment.