Mark Gourmet | Bloomberg
Apple Inc. is pushing to accelerate the development of its electric vehicle and reorienting the project towards full self-government, according to people familiar with the matter, in an effort to solve a technical problem that has plagued the auto industry.
Over the past few years, Apple’s automotive team has explored two simultaneous paths: creating a model with limited autonomous driving capabilities focused on steering and acceleration – like many modern cars – or a version with full autonomous driving capability that does not require human intervention.
Under the leadership of a new project leader, Apple Watch software manager Kevin Lynch, the engineers are now focusing on the second option. Lynch is pushing for a fully autonomous vehicle in the first version, people said, who asked not to be named because the discussion is private.
Apple shares rose 2.4% to $ 157.23 following a Bloomberg report.
This is simply the latest shift in an automotive company known as the Special Projects Group or Project Titan, which has undergone a change in strategy and leadership change since around 2014. In September, former team head Doug Field left after three years at Ford Motor Co. In choosing Lynch to replace, Apple chose an internal executive who was not a car veteran.
In trying to master self-driving cars, Apple is pursuing the holy grail of the industry. The tech and automotive giants have spent years building autonomous vehicles, but their capabilities have remained elusive.
Tesla Inc., the leader in the electric vehicle market, is likely a long way from offering fully autonomous vehicles. Waymo of Alphabet Inc. has undergone a number of deviations in its efforts to develop this technology. And last year Uber Technologies Inc. agreed to sell its autonomous driving division.
Apple is internally aiming to launch its self-driving car in four years, faster than the five to seven-year schedule some engineers were planning earlier this year. But the timeline is flexible, and achieving that goal by 2025 depends on the company’s ability to complete the self-government system – an ambitious target for this timetable. If Apple fails to meet its goal, it can either delay release or sell the vehicle with less tech first.
An Apple spokesman in Cupertino, California declined to comment.
Apple’s ideal car would have no steering wheel or pedals, and its interior designed to be hands-free. One of the options discussed internally is an interior similar to that found in the Lifestyle car from Canoo Inc., an upstart in the electric vehicle industry. In this car, passengers sit on the sides of the car, facing each other, like in a limousine.
Apple has also looked into projects in which the car’s infotainment system – likely a large iPad-like touchscreen – will sit in the center of the car, allowing users to interact with it while driving. The car will also be highly integrated with existing Apple services and devices. While the company is pushing for the standard steering wheel to be dropped, Apple is discussing the possibility of equipping the car with an emergency swap mode.
The company recently reached a key milestone in developing a basic autonomous driving system, according to people familiar with the situation. Apple believes it has already completed most of the core work on the processor it intends to eventually ship in the first generation of the car.
The chip was designed by Apple’s silicon development team that developed processors for the iPhone, iPad and Mac, not the automotive team itself. The work involved honing basic software that runs on a chip to enable autonomous driving.
Achievements could soon be road testing. Apple plans to start using the new processor design and updated autonomous driving sensors in its redesigned vehicles, which the company has spent years testing in California. The company’s fleet currently consists of 69 Lexus SUVs that are experimenting with its technology, according to the State Department of Motor Vehicles.
Apple’s automotive chip is the most advanced component internally developed by Apple. It consists mainly of neural processors that can process the artificial intelligence needed for autonomous driving. The chip’s capabilities mean it will overheat and will likely require a sophisticated cooling system to be developed.
It is hoped to develop a vehicle that will relieve customers of the fatigue of driving on long journeys. But building a real car – for an outsider in the auto industry like Apple – will require partnerships. The company has discussed deals with several manufacturers and has been considering building the car in the United States.
Even with recent progress, making a fully autonomous vehicle by 2025 is considered very aggressive at Apple. Some people at Project Titan are skeptical about the timing.
Safety is the main piece of the puzzle. Apple is committed to creating more robust security measures than those available from Tesla and Waymo, say engineers involved in the effort. This includes creating sufficient redundancy — the ability to leverage layers of backup systems to avoid security and management failures.
Apple is actively seeking engineers to test and develop security features. “The Special Projects team is looking for an experienced mechanical engineer to lead the development of mechanical systems with critical safety features,” says one of Apple’s recent job listings. “You will use your passion for solving things to help design security systems and spearhead testing and countermeasures for those systems.”
As part of efforts to accelerate the project, Apple is hiring more autonomous driving and automotive equipment engineers. This included bringing in CJ Moore, Tesla’s former director of self-driving car software.
In recent weeks, Apple has also reached out to a climate systems specialist from Volvo Car AB, a manager from Daimler Trucks, battery systems engineers from Karma Automotive LLC and other automakers, a sensor engineer from Cruise LLC General Motors Co., and automotive safety engineers. from companies like Joyson Safety Systems, and dozens of other Tesla engineers, according to LinkedIn and people with knowledge of the matter.
The company is also hiring software engineers to work on “the human experience with autonomous technology,” according to Apple’s job listing, which suggests the company is deeply involved in car user interface development. The list assumes that the software under development will be based on technology similar to the iPhone operating system.
Apple has discussed compatibility with a Combined Charging System, or CCS, for powering a vehicle. This would allow Apple to connect to a vast global network of chargers. But this approach will be different from the more proprietary charging systems he developed for the iPhone and Apple Watch.
Apple has internally discussed several different business models for its vehicle, including building a fleet that will rival the likes of Uber, Lyft Inc. and Waymo. The company discussed an exterior design similar to Canoo if it took the navy approach. However, the more likely scenario is that Apple offers cars for individual ownership.
Getting to this will not be easy. Apple’s automotive project has suffered from development challenges, leadership struggles, layoffs and delays throughout its seven-year history. Field’s arrival from Tesla in 2018 sparked a wave of excitement that eventually subsided. In 2021, at least four top managers left the project, in addition to Field himself.
Some members of the group believe Field was annoyed that he reported to the head of artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, after the retirement of his previous boss, Bob Mansfield. Mansfield reported directly to CEO Tim Cook, working part-time and supervising the car.
Lynch became the fifth executive to lead the project in about seven years. This level of employee turnover is rare at Apple. For example, his virtual and augmented reality team has had one leader since the project started around the same time as the car.
However, given Lynch’s ability to help turn the Apple Watch into a mainstream product, some engineers on the automotive team consider its appointment as optimistic. Lynch reports to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.
Lynch is a software manager with no automotive hardware or battery life experience, but former Tesla executives on the project, including Michael Schwekutsch and Stuart Bowers, play key roles. Apple also hired Ulrich Krantz earlier this year. He previously headed Canoo and helped oversee the development of BMW’s electric vehicles.
When Lynch was chosen to lead the automotive project, he remained in charge of the Apple Watch operating system and some of the health software development teams. He continues to be involved in high-level decision making, devoting most of his time to the automotive project.
Now the question is whether the executive who ran one of Apple’s last big things – its smartwatch – can turn the machine into the next one.
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