Although low-level rumors about Apple working on vehicle development have swirled around for years, recently, a much stronger rumor was published by Reuters news service, and the world took notice. It’s one thing when people in chat rooms or Apple fan sites are discussing what they imagine an Apple car would be like. But it’s another thing entirely when an organization like Reuters publishes an article, even a rumor article, about the subject.
It’s no secret that Apple has been working on technology that could definitely have clear applications in the auto industry, though they’ve experienced a few setbacks here and there. But this latest rumor is not merely that they might provide autonomous driving technology for another company, but could introduce their own vehicle – referred to by many an online pundit as the “iCar.” All of this is still a rumor, of course, and according to Reuters, their information came from “people familiar with the matter” and “a third person,” so it’s completely unofficial.
But, it’s not without some logic behind it. So let’s take a look at what we know Apple has been developing and what an iCar might have going on.
Apple Development – Project Titan
Before we get into the most recent rumors, let’s talk about Apple’s history when it comes to developing something that might resemble a vehicle. It all started in late 2014 and early 2015 with the creation of “Project Titan” within Apple, a project that was supposedly working on developing an all-electric vehicle. It was initially led by Steve Zadesky, Vice President at Apple and a former Ford engineer, which makes sense if you want to develop a car. They also hired on a man named Johann Jungwirth, a former head of research and development at Mercedes-Benz – so all of the pieces seemed to be in place.
By early 2015, work was hard underway on developing what could only be an Apple car. Apple hired more people with a history in the auto industry and was reportedly aggressively trying to lure employees away from Tesla to help with the development. All throughout 2015, there were more rumors about Apple car development, including agreements for test tracks and statements about the future of the auto industry from Apple insiders, including Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO.
In 2016, however, things started to change. Steve Zadesky left the project, and rumors started that a hiring freeze was put in place while Apple tried to figure out what they were doing. Apple convinced senior hardware engineer Bob Mansfield to come out of retirement to head the project. They also hired Dan Dodge, a former CEO of the automotive software company QNX. Many experts believe that these changes signaled a shift away from developing an electric vehicle and instead focused on creating the tools needed for an autonomous or self-driving car.
Development in this new direction was in full swing by 2017, as Apple hired robotics experts from NASA and other sources to help work on the project. By 2018, Apple was apparently testing its self-driving technology, and its test fleet posted more than 80,000 miles of autonomous driving by the end of the year. And yet, once again, the development slowed. Apple laid off more than 200 members of the Project Titan team in January of 2019, and by the end of the year, they had added fewer than 8,000 additional miles to their testing.
Once again, the project seemed directionless and trying to figure out what it was doing. Apple was clearly working on self-driving technology, but what was the end-goal? Were they simply planning on selling or leasing the tech to other companies? Or were they actually working on some kind of Apple Car of their own?
Apple Development – Drive.ai Acquisition
In June of 2019, however, Apple acquired a startup called Drive.ai, which had been working on developing autonomous car technology. This would seem to indicate that Apple was still interested in the market but looking for more direction. Sources indicate that this acquisition was about bringing the people and talent within the startup over to Apple, rather than an interest in the specific technology that Drive.ai had been working on.
Things were pretty quiet after that, though by the end of 2020, the project had been moved to the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning division of Apple. Bob Mansfield had retired, once again, and it seems that Apple was looking for new leadership to oversee development. This official announcement was made at the start of December 2020 – and just a few weeks later, Reuters released their article with the iCar rumors.
The Reuters Rumors
On December 21st, Reuters published an article stating that an Apple car is in development and that Apple is targeting 2024 to start production on the vehicle. According to their sources “familiar with” the project, Apple is moving forward with a vehicle featuring self-driving technology and using a new form of battery. If true, this new battery would be lighter and provide more power than batteries used in EV models from other manufacturers – resulting in better performance and superior range.
As you saw above, the idea of automotive technology being in development at Apple is nothing new, and it’s been all but confirmed that the company has worked on both EV and autonomous driving technology. But, according to this most recent rumor, Apple is not looking to simply sell this technology to an established manufacturer or to partner with an existing car company. This most recent report indicates that Apple is looking to build a car: an Apple iCar or something similar that they would manufacture.
The biggest hurdle they’re likely to face, beyond the massive expense of setting up new manufacturing operations, is LiDAR technology. Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) is one of the more promising technologies that would allow autonomous cars to be able to drive on their own. It essentially measures distances by using lasers and then measuring the reflected light when it returns to create a three-dimensional model of the area surrounding the object, like a car, that emits the light signal. It’s like radar; only it uses light instead of radio waves.
According to various sources, Apple has already figured this out and has LiDAR technology available from one of several other companies. This means that developing a self-driving vehicle then relies on Apple’s own robotics and AI systems to use this LiDAR data to understand what’s around the vehicle and react accordingly. In other words, some kind of iCar could very easily be in the works.
What Would an iCar be Like?
This is the big question on everyone’s mind, and unfortunately, there’s no real answer. Over the years that Project Titan has been in one form of development or another, the supposed goal they were working on has changed several times. At one time, rumors said they were working on a car, while at another time, the prototype they were developing was more like a minivan. Concept art has been worked up by various auto news outlets with all sorts of strange designs, and at one time, Apple was even rumored to be in talks with BMW for a potential partnership.
However, if Apple is looking to make their own car, they’d likely want it to represent their brand and image. I imagine we’ll see it in white, with sleek, simple lines that make it unmistakably part of Apple’s lineup of devices and technology. Of course, they need to keep it distinct from Tesla models and upcoming designs by other manufacturers too, so I keep coming back to the idea of something that can’t be confused with a car from any other company. But only time will tell.