Blog

It’s the end of the road for the Apple Car

Fresh claims that Apple has shelved its project to build a semi-autonomous vehicle have emerged, and this time they ring true. But the company will be enjoying the benefits of its efforts for years to come.

What happened to the Apple car?

Bloomberg claims Apple has halted development on the Apple Car project (Project Titan) because the company no longer thinks the project is viable.

Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams allegedly told the 2,000-strong team that no more work will be done on the vehicle. Some members of the team will be shifted to work in Apple’s Artificial Intelligence division, as it works towards its own response to the generative AI (genAI) wave.

There have been on/off reports on the project from within the company for years. This work reportedly suffered changes in goals and leadership over time, though those reported changes may have simply reflected necessary strategic shifts.

There will be benefits from the project.

“But wait,” you might ask. “What benefits exist for a failed project Apple has poured billions into?”

Here are just three:

Apple Silicon

It takes a lot of computational power to run a ChatGPT query. That is why the system relies on cloud-based servers. Autonomous vehicles also require intense computational power. That is, in part, why beyond some very limited scenarios, truly autonomous vehicles still don’t really exist; the power of the processor puts a brake on what they can do.

A moving vehicle cannot be expected to connect 100% of the time to a server to handle the complex demands of navigating people, buildings, and traffic, particularly when it goes underground. Apple’s R&D teams surely saw this need coming, which likely encouraged the company to build its own super-fast, low-power Apple Silicon chips. That’s not the only reason, of course, but the power of the chip in your iPhone, iPad, or Mac is in part attributable to the need to build a system capable of handling road traffic at the edge, no server required.

Metal process evolution

Apple doesn’t use just any aluminium; it uses a recycled alloy that relies on advanced processes.

Given the sheer quantity of metal in any vehicle it’s plausible to believe that at least one of the reasons Apple invested in a more environmentally aware metals production process was because it knew it would need a lot of this stuff. It already uses a great deal and its existing products are much smaller than a car.

I’ve little doubt that Apple’s environmental teams have learned a great deal from their part in the Apple Car exercise. That insight will directly inform the company’s ongoing attempts to build circular manufacturing processes.

Perhaps Apple realized that you cannot replace all the world’s vehicles and maintain any sense of environmental responsibility.

As Autocar notes, the company also tried (and seemingly failed) to find an existing automaker or other manufacturing partner prepared to build vehicles on its behalf; Hyundai was briefly in the frame for the task and Apple execs met European manufacturers as recently as last month.

But if you can’t make the vehicle, you can still make (some) of the AI….

Mapping and chums

Apple has invested huge amounts of cash in Maps. That money has become a fully-featured Maps app, along with plenty of supporting technologies — not least, in machine vision intelligence. All the work Apple’s car team likely did toward developing systems that accurately recognize the world around them feeds into similar efforts we see each time we translate a street sign with our iPhone, or hold up the device to map a room using LiDAR.

The ability to accurately recognize the surroundings and gauge distances between objects is essential when you’re building a system that drives a ton of metal around busy, crowded streets. These technologies are all now proving themselves in visionOS, which is also about providing information to a moving object (you).

Machine intelligence

Artificial intelligence, generative AI — call it what you will, but the years Apple spent attempting to build a control system capable of navigating busy city streets has direct impact on its mapping services (above), and will deliver insights upon which the company will build next-level mobile intelligence across its other devices.

Perhaps the problem Apple encountered was that, even with new manufacturing processes and the fastest low-power processors on the planet, it still could not build a navigation system that could drive a car as safely and effectively as a human?

That’s not impossible — Tesla hasn’t managed it despite spending tens of billions of dollars each year on R&D.

But one thing is certain: in its attempt to create an autonomous vehicle, Apple will have crafted a host of supporting technologies that can and will be included within other products and services from the company.

CarPlay

Many drivers prefer Apple’s CarPlay system to the systems provided by car manufacturers. Apple will update the system this year with a host of new features for compatible vehicles. These will include vehicle monitoring, climate control and useful driving related data. Compatible vehicles include cars from Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Jeep, Land Rover, Lucid, Mercedes and Toyota. 

What happens next with CarPlay isn’t clear, but who can predict the possibilities in the event Apple folds more of what it has learned about auto intelligence over the last 10 years into that system?

The Apple AI

Apple CEO Tim Cook once told Bloomberg: “We’re focusing on autonomous systems. And clearly, one purpose of autonomous systems are self-driving cars. There are others.

“We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on, and so autonomy is something that’s incredibly exciting for us. But we’ll see where it takes us.”

Commenting on Apple’s decision, Li Auto CEO Li Xiang said: “AI will become the top-level entrance for all devices, services, applications and transactions, in which Apple should stay on top.”

One more thing

Eric Woodring, Apple analyst at Morgan Stanley, notes that the move to shift Apple Car teams into genAI development will pay more immediate dividends as the company  preps for a WWDC reveal of some of these new features. Woodring also points out that with R&D costs on the project reaching some billion-dollars a year, the move to cancel the project translates into a nice revenue bounce moving forward.

For me, I still think Apple should have invested (and still could) in creating the world’s safest and smartest electronic bike. Like Horace Dediu, I believe part of the brighter future of transportation is in micro-mobility.

Please follow me on Mastodon, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


dwnews

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button