What is Apple driving at with its iCar?
- 10 March, 2019 06:42
Apple CEO Tim Cook (a.k.a. “Tim Apple”) told investors last week that Apple is “rolling the dice” on future products that will “blow you away.” The company has recently and radically increased its research and development budget to above US$10 billion per year.
I believe one of those dice-rolling initiatives is Project Titan — Apple’s self-driving car.
I talk to a lot of informed readers, industry notables and news junkies, and everybody seems to have a different idea about what’s going on with Titan. Is Apple building its own Tesla? Or is it simply improving its CarPlay dashboard system? Or something in between?
It’s an important question, because the direction Apple takes with Titan could have huge consequences for enterprises, transportation, artificial intelligence and the consumer electronics market.
Before we get to all that, let’s dispel the many misconceptions around Apple’s Project Titan.
1. Apple is killing off its self-driving car program
False. Yes, Apple said last month that it will lay off 190 Silicon Valley employees in its self-driving car unit by April 16 — 38 engineering program managers, 33 hardware engineers, 31 product design engineers and 22 software engineers.
But Reuters reported that court documents reveal that some 5,000 Apple employees are working on Titan at least part time, with 1,200 employees working on it full time. So Apple still has thousands of people working on Titan, despite the layoffs.
2. Apple’s self-driving technology is way behind other companies’
False. The conventional wisdom in the media is that Apple is far behind Waymo and other self-driving car efforts.
The “evidence” for this claim comes from public California DMV records. It’s based on the number of “disengagements” reported for tests on public roads — the number of times the test or safety driver disengages autonomous systems to take over and drive manually.
Apple’s 66 self-driving Lexus SUVs have a lot of disengagements — a whopping 69,510 disengagements in 2018 while driving 79,745 miles in autonomous mode. That comes to one disengagement for every 1.1 self-driven miles.
That’s far more than Google’s Waymo, which averaged one disengagement for every 11,017 self-driven miles. Apple, in fact, is second-to-last on a list of 28 companies testing in public.
But it did do better than Uber’s average of one disengagement for every 0.4 self-driven miles.
In any case, we don’t know (yet) how many disengagements were necessary, and how many were elective.
We do know that Apple told the DMV in a letter that its “approach to disengagements is conservative,” and that it would start categorizing them in the future as “important” (i.e., life-saving or law-breaking) or not. We also know that Apple’s disengagement rate is probably improving faster than any other company’s.
Ultimately the rate of reported disengagements tells us very little about how advanced Apple’s self-driving technology is.
3. Apple has a secret former military base test track outside Silicon Valley
False. A number of reports falsely claim that Apple is leasing a decommissioned naval station for testing Titan self-driving cars.
What actually happened is that Apple engineers were once spotted touring the GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre former naval base near Silicon Valley that has been offered to self-driving car companies as a for-pay proving and testing ground, as reported in 2015 by The Guardian newspaper. The former base has nearly 20 miles of old roads and streets, including a patch where fast driving can be tested.
Many autonomous car projects have been tested there. Apple’s may have been tested there. But we don’t know for sure. We do know that Apple does not have exclusive use of the facility.
4. Apple’s self-driving car will be a car
False. When the public thinks of a self-driving car, it tends to think of a Tesla or Lexus or Toyota that has automated driving. But the future of self-driving vehicles isn’t like today’s cars.
Think of a future self-driving car as a conceptual sandwich — two slices of “bread” with “meat” in the middle. The bottom slice of bread is the mobility part — a chassis with huge batteries and an electric motor for the wheels.
The top slice of bread is the self-driving part — the sensors (cameras, lidar and others) plus connectivity and AI to safely convey the vehicle around autonomously.
And then there’s the meat in the middle. What will the meat be?
Fully automatic, ultra-safe self-driving cars of the future will have interiors that will probably be more like game rooms, offices and even hotel rooms than cars. They’ll be cubes where people will be able to actively ignore the fact that their bodies are being conveyed from one place to another.
A German publication called Manager Magazin this month reported that Apple’s self-driving car may be a van, rather than a car, according to multiple sources. That report also said Apple engineers are working on the vehicle’s interior.
A van is the closest thing in appearance today to the self-driving car of tomorrow.
Apple is also working on dog-fooding Titan in the form of self-driving Volkswagen vans that will shuttle employees between Apple campuses in Silicon Valley. The program is called Palo Alto to Infinite Loop, or PAIL.
5. Apple is working on its car project in Silicon Valley exclusively
False. Famously secretive Apple is known to have secret locations within a few miles of its Apple Park headquarters, specifically in Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, where the Titan project is being worked on.
We also know that the Sunnyvale building was leased in 2014 and was retrofitted by Apple with new labs and workshop areas. Apple also installed high-tech security in the space.
But an Apple self-driving car office also occupies a floor of a building in central Berlin. We would not even know about this office if it weren’t for serious sleuthing by some intrepid reporters.
It’s likely that Apple has other Titan offices we don’t know about scattered around in various cities.
6. Apple will only do the software part of a self-driving car
False. Cook told Bloomberg two years ago that when it comes to autonomous cars, “We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” by which he means the top slice of “bread” in the autonomous car sandwich.
But then six months ago, Apple rehired Doug Field to serve as Apple’s vice president of special projects. He is, by all accounts, the perfect person to head Titan. Field graduated from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering. During his career, he’s worked at Segway and, most recently, five years at Tesla. Crucially, he has the trust of senior Apple executives because he worked for five years at Apple previously as vice president of hardware engineering for the Mac.
This hire also telegraph’s Apple’s intentions: Apple’s head of Titan is not a software engineer or an AI scientist, but a mechanical engineer — a hardware engineer.
It’s also worth noting that most of Apple’s automotive patents — and it has many — are related to physical car design.
For example, Apple was recently granted a patent for a next-generation lighting system for cars, specifically optical-fiber interior lighting that “blends in” with the car’s interior without the use of bulbs or LEDs. Apple has patents for sunroof designs, car seat systems, augmented reality windshields, in-the-air gesture controls and more.
Two more recently published patents show Apple’s inventions in the areas of wireless systems for “enhancing situational awareness” and car-to-car communication for safety.
Yet another patent essentially describes Face ID for cars.
It’s unlikely that Apple would aggressively pursue all these patents if it had no plans to design physical car hardware.
7. Apple will probably build its own cars
False. Apple is unlikely to build a Detroit-style — or Tesla-style, for that matter — factory and build its own cars.
The actual builder of Apple’s car will almost certainly end up being Austrian automobile contract manufacturer Magna Steyr, which built the new Mercedes G-Wagen, the super SUV that has tested as one of the safest cars ever built.
Bloomberg reported a few years ago that, back then, around a dozen Magna Steyr engineers were working full time at Apple’s secret Sunnyvale facility for Titan.
If Apple does cars like it does iPhones, it will use a contract manufacturer to build the car “Designed by Apple in California.”
8. We know Apple won’t operate a ride-sharing service
False. In the same Bloomberg interview where Cook said the company is focused on self-driving AI as the “mother of all AI projects,” he also pointed out that Apple’s self-driving car efforts focused on three areas: self-driving cars, electric vehicles and ride-sharing.
In other words, Apple is working on: 1) autonomous vehicle hardware/software systems; 2) Apple cars; and 3) an Uber-like ride-sharing service.
What we do know about Apple is that the company likes to provide and profit from all aspects of a platform. If you look at the iPhone, Apple provides and profits from the hardware, the OS, the core apps, the cloud storage service and more. It takes a huge percentage of all revenues for third-party apps and many accessories. It owns and operates retail stores.
Apple will have the cars. It will have Apple Maps. And Apple already has your credit card data.
Most importantly, an Apple Uber-like ride-sharing service makes sense as a next-generation replacement for Apple Stores, an Apple-designed space where random passengers can experience Apple technology, content and services in luxury.
9. Apple sees cars as primarily about transportation
False. Apple Senior Vice President Jeff Williams said on stage at the Code Conference that “the car is the ultimate mobile device.”
And we know from published patents that Apple is hard at work polishing the self-driving car user experience.
That patent I described as Face ID for cars specifies that identification of individuals could not only unlock the car, but also customize music and other content settings for the individual users.
Another Apple patent recently published involves the use of the car itself as a wireless Apple Pay — the idea being that you roll up to the Starbucks drive-through, and your latte is paid for like Easy-Pass pays for toll roads.
Ultimately, Apple probably sees cars as “mobile devices” that will be one of the many technologies that will replace smartphones (the others include smart glasses, smart speakers and smart displays, and smart offices).
10. Cars are completely outside Apple’s narrow product scope
False. Apple optimizes its products for content consumption or content production. Its iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and other products are optimized for “fixing” the content consumption experience, in the Apple view.
In the future, people will likely spend up to a third of their waking hours in autonomous vehicles. They won’t be driving. How will they spend the time?
Obviously, self-driving cars will be moveable content consumption experiences.
And that’s what Apple does. It creates the best hardware, software and services it can for optimizing content consumption (and communication). And, years from now, that means it will have to lead self-driving cars or cede the content consumption experience to other companies.
That’s what I think it’s driving at.