Apple to Focus on Autonomous Cars’ Software, Abandons Car-Building Ambitions

Christian Cutler August 23, 2017
Apple to Focus on Autonomous Cars’ Software, Abandons Car-Building Ambitions

Apple Inc. lowered down its automotive ambitions to a modest level, and announced that the company is presently more focused on developing the software needed for driverless cars, thus putting off its notion of Apple-branded cars, according to a report.

Timothy Cook, Apple’s chief executive officer, said in a June interview that the company is “focusing on autonomous systems.”

“It’s a core technology that we view as very important,” said the 56-year old CEO.

In the interview, Cook described the project as “the mother of all AI projects,” and stated that it is “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”

A Long Road to Driverless Car Technology

Initially, Apple scaled its project to a level that encapsulated all aspects of the project in its control. The project started rolling in 2014, and was tagged as “Project Titan,” with hundreds of engineers hired to be dedicated on the project and to take over every aspect of the product.

During early periods of Titan’s progress, Apple employed not only engineers with expert software knowledge, but also those with useful car-building skills, and the resulting team looked into a wide range of details, including doors that open and close without making any noise, interior without a steering wheel or gas pedal, and virtual and/or augmented reality displays.

Additionally, Apple wanted to reinvent the light and ranging detector, also known as lidar, and remove its awkwardness in the vehicles' design due to its coned shape. The people involved in the project even went further and toyed with the idea of producing cars with spherical wheels, which make it easier for cars to be maneuvered in better lateral movements.

According to a report, people working in and familiar with the project cited several reasons explaining the current retrenchment of the project.

Among the reasons were the tremendous size of the project, which encompassed software and hardware designs and reinventions, and the reported lack of defined vision of Apple’s final goal if and when the project concluded. There were also reported shifting priorities and unrealistic deadlines.

There were also discussions and arguments about the types of software to be used. Apple executive Steve Zadesky, who was previously in charge of the project, wanted to pursue a semiautonomous vehicle, but was contradicted by the people working in the industrial design team, including the company’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive. The latter insisted that a successful development of a fully driverless car would give the company the badge for reimagining the automobile and driving experience.

There were also debates regarding the programming language to be used on the vehicle’s software. The options were Swift, which is Apple’s own programming language, and the standard C++.

After Zadesky left project Titan and took a leave of absence, the company eventually tapped Bob Mansfield and appointed him as the new person in charge of the project. Mansfield has been a long-time Apple executive who has been involved in numerous hardware engineering for some of Apple’s products.

Mansfield chose to focus on the underlying technology that allows cars to be semi or fully autonomous and, as a consequence, he had to lay off some hardware staff.

Project Titan Still Cruising

Presently, the iPhone maker is conducting road tests in different areas. In April, the company secured a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which allowed them to test self-driving sports-utility vehicles, although Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr reportedly declined to issue a comment about the length of time the company has been testing the roads.

According to a report, the testing vehicles will cruise the roads between its various Silicon Valley offices while carrying Apple employees in it. This is a similar effort succeeding those from Waymo, Uber, and other companies that have also been testing autonomous vehicles on different city streets around the world.

Moreover, Mansfield’s team has grown again with more people who are experts in the development of autonomous systems, instead of car manufacturing. It is also reported that the team has gained back its focus, and its morale has been boosted.

Cook, on the other hand, stated that the company’s doors aren’t entirely shut to the idea of an Apple-branded car by saying that they would still have to see where the project takes them.

Another challenge for Apple is the knowledge that other companies are also racing to perfect the self-driving technology; which means that the competition gets tighter, and the company has to secure a tight hold on its top and talented engineers.

Ultimately, project Titan’s success, which must be the perfection of self-driving systems for vehicles, would be a prized achievement for Apple. The possible success will mean another breakthrough product from the company.

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Christian Cutler


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