RIP to the Apple Car, we barely knew you

In 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed what the global auto industry had long feared: the tech giant was working on a self-driving car.

“We focus on autonomous systems. And it’s clear that a goal of autonomous systems is self-driving cars,” Cook said in an interview with Bloomberg. “And we kind of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on and so autonomy is something that’s incredibly exciting for us, but we’ll see where it takes us.”

Where things were going, Apple was essentially nowhere. On Tuesday, BloombergMark Gurman confirmed that Apple was winding down its secret car project, with most of the team’s employees moving to generative AI initiatives. Others would probably be fired. Presumably the car would be mothballed alongside other never-to-be-released products like the Apple TV and the Paladin.

“We kind of see it as the mother of all AI projects.”

Nearly a decade after the initial launch of Project Titan, Apple is back where it started. It remains a vague, mysterious object until the bitter end, never really taking shape outside the raw, shamed fantasies of the company’s most devoted fanbase. And while it appears to have been largely a wasted effort, the decision to pull the plug is being celebrated by potential competitors and especially investors.

Wall Street has always been skeptical of Apple’s vehicle-like hustle, viewing it as an expensive distraction with more pitfalls than upside. Wedbush’s Dan Ives congratulated Apple for “ripping off the Band-Aid,” arguing that it was “clearly the right move for Cook & Co.” to proceed to.” Morgan Stanley analysts praised the company for “focusing on what matters” and “demonstrating cost discipline.”

It remains a vague, mysterious object until the bitter end

The implication isn’t that an Apple car wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, just that the company would be better off focusing on higher-profile, more in-the-wheelhouse projects like AI.

It’s no surprise that the demise of the Apple car coincides with a bleak outlook for electric and autonomous vehicles. After years of promising that battery-powered, self-driving vehicles would soon dominate passenger transportation, the industry is experiencing serious growing pains. Investments are being reined in, factories are being shut down and model series are being cancelled. Pure EV plays like Rivian and Lucid, companies that make exclusively plug-in vehicles, are struggling to find customers as most people look for something more affordable – or hedge their bets with a hybrid.

If Apple were to suddenly jump onto this stage, the tech giant would likely face similar headwinds, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights.

“Affordability is an increasing issue and with Apple not wanting to sell an entry-level EV, we are left with an increasingly tight premium market,” he says. “If Lucid and Rivian can’t find a way to sell expensive electric cars with products that are as good as they are, things will be tough for a new entrant like Apple.”

A fully autonomous vehicle would have been just as difficult, if not more so. Just look at the increasingly fraught adventures of California’s various robotaxi companies, where cars are increasingly crashing into pedestrians, buses and cyclists. Apple, always incredibly image conscious, would do best to avoid similar headlines.

It’s no surprise that the demise of the Apple car coincides with a bleak outlook for electric and autonomous vehicles

It’s fair to say that developing a package of hardware and software necessary to make a car drive itself has always seemed a better fit for Apple’s capabilities than building a whole damn car from scratch. And the company was clearly making some progress there, operating a modestly sized fleet in California and even releasing a hilariously sparse seven-page safety report to federal regulators.

But Apple never really caught up to its rivals, who had worked on this problem longer and had more resources to devote. It has never received a permit from California regulators to operate its vehicles without safety drivers in the front seat. And the company’s fleet size remained relatively flat. But Apple stuck to it. Last year, the company beat Waymo and Cruise in increasing the number of miles traveled by its autonomous vehicles. The WashingtonPost reported.

Sure, Apple can retrofit dozens of cars with sensors and software and make them drive themselves. Many companies can do that. More than three dozen companies have self-driving cars on the road in California. It’s not that hard to find a bunch of Toyota Highlanders and slap some cameras and lidar on them.

Apple never really caught up to its rivals

But it’s the next step, and the step after that, that proved too intimidating. Given the company’s control freak nature, the only way Apple could make this work was likely a closed robotaxi ecosystem, perhaps as a monthly subscription service. But that’s a business model that has yet to be proven. Even Elon Musk can’t seem to make the math – or technology – work.

None of the rumored deals ever materialized. It would collaborate with BMW. No wait, it’s Volkswagen. Ah, what about Hyundai anyway? Or Nissan? When none of the established automakers would sign up to build Apple’s car, the company decided to focus on software. It bought Drive.AI just days before the startup would run out of money, acquiring the small company’s small team of AV engineers. And it could never decide who exactly should be in charge of this entire operation.

Ultimately, top executives gave Project Titan a mandate in January: put up or shut up. Bloomberg reported that self-driving cars were out, and Level 2+ ADAS – think Tesla’s Full Self-Driving or GM’s Super Cruise – was in. The launch date was pushed back to 2028.

Only that wasn’t the case. Weeks later the plug was pulled. The Apple car was toast. We’ll never know what we missed.

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