Tencent technology news on September 13, a few minutes after the news that Tesla’s former high pipe Doug field, who led Apple’s auto project, switched to Ford last week, the auto Department team of the technology giant immediately held a staff meeting.
When he left, field explained that he joined Ford to “try to make a difference”. Field is not the only executive to quit Apple’s Secret “project Titan”, but the fourth project leader to leave in seven years. The team has lost three other executives in the past few months. When the media speculated that Apple might shelve the project, the employees felt very nervous.
However, according to two sources present, at the half-hour briefing, Apple executives said they would restructure the automotive sector and would not cut jobs. Subsequently, some media reported that Kevin Lynch, who led Apple’s smart watch and health project, would take over the car team, although Apple’s car has not really been launched.
Laurie yoler, a founding board member of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla and a former board member of zoox, an autonomous driving start-up company acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion, said that despite the turmoil, it is too early to assert that Apple’s seven-year automobile manufacturing efforts are coming to an end.
“I know a lot of people who have gone to Apple’s auto Department to look for opportunities in the past few years. Not many, about a dozen, but they all left recently. They come from companies such as waymo, zoox and Airbus. These are real senior people,” yoller said
Although so many years have passed, apple does not seem to be closer to launching its own brand cars. The company has never officially recognized the existence of the Titan project, although it must submit a report on how many miles its car has traveled in California.
These prototypes are usually white Lexus models, with various sensors installed on the roof. Their test frequency is enough for architectural design photographer Jean Bai to sit outside Cupertino and its surrounding Apple facilities and take enough photos for them.
However, compared with the 630000 miles (about 1.01 million kilometers) test mileage completed by alphabet’s waymo car project in California, Apple’s car only drove 30000 kilometers automatically last year. Moreover, Apple’s car testing is decreasing. Waymo said that the average mileage of its vehicles in the intervention of test drivers was about 48000 kilometers, compared with the average 233 kilometers of Apple cars, which needed the help of drivers.
The initial optimism of Apple’s auto project appeared in 2015, when Apple CEO Tim Cook said at a meeting that he wanted people to “enjoy an experience similar to that brought by iPhone in cars”. “All this is to make people’s life outside and in the car seamless,” he added. At that time, the smartphone market seemed to be saturated, revenue was declining, and apple urgently needed a new product.
But the iPhone maker is not the only company whose early vision proved too ambitious and unrealistic. Google founder Larry Page said that autonomous taxis could be “larger than Google”. In 2016, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, said that the “self driving vehicle” basically solved the problem and predicted that “fully automatic driving could be achieved in less than two years”.
In 2017, Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, detonated the German auto show with an opening remark: “I have brought a very good news: we are the only company in Silicon Valley that does not produce cars.”
Apple’s advantages are unclear
But the commitment to autopilot is premature. The pioneers who spent billions of dollars developing this technology are not close to recouping their investment. Many companies have failed in their efforts, for example, Uber and Lyft have divested their respective autopilot projects in the past year.
Angus pacala, chief executive of digital lidar group ouster, said: “in 2010, when technology companies started all these projects on autonomous taxis, people were very excited. They said, ‘we want to completely destroy the automobile industry like destroying Nokia and BlackBerry’, but this is far from the truth.”
Today, the revolution seems more and more distant, while Apple’s advantage in the market is difficult to be noticed. Bernstein analyst Arndt Ellinghorst said: “I just can’t see where Apple will have a technological advantage. Apple cars may be self driving, but the world is developing this technology. In this difficult market to make money, it doesn’t bode well to have no advantage.”
Apple has expertise in the supply chain, is a desirable brand, and can be said to be the highest model of the combination of hardware, software and services in the world. Nevertheless, there is little sign in its product portfolio that apple can surpass Tesla in battery performance or beat Mercedes and BMW in internal design or large-scale manufacturing.
The recent patent licensing also shows some signs that the apple car team is now studying all aspects of the passenger experience, not necessarily the car manufacturing itself. Last month, apple patented external lighting technology that can display text, speed and light warnings. Another patent is the safety system, which relates to the airbag deployed from the roof and passenger safety belt.
Another patent relates to car lighting, which guides passengers to charge iPhones or make coffee in the dark. Other patents granted to Apple last month also involve visual sensors, suspension systems and traffic notifications for automatic driving.
Apple is not making cars?
For Manuela papadol, a veteran in the automotive industry and CEO of the designed driver, a start-up company focusing on remote driving cars, all signs show that apple is reducing its ambition of automotive projects from manufacturing complete vehicles to building strong digital cockpit and redefining passenger experience.
“It’s impossible for apple to make a complete vehicle. But don’t get me wrong: I think the opportunities apple is looking for in the automotive field are still amazing, but these opportunities involve not making cars, but the interior space of cars. They can project augmented reality and virtual reality onto windows. That’s the opportunity,” she said
At the same time, several people who have left the Titan project said that the project has not confirmed a clear way forward. It’s rare to hear old carmakers worried about the iPhone maker invading their territory.
“I really don’t feel that someone in the automotive industry is afraid of apple,” said Sasha ostojic, an operating partner of playround global and a former engineer in cruise, GM’s automatic driving department
“When I was in charge of the project at cruise, I interviewed a lot of people from Apple’s special products department, including Titan project staff. But most of them were disappointed with the apple project and thought that most of its research had no direction, and they preferred to participate in more serious projects.” (reviewed by Tencent technology / Jinlu)