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Behind Apple's doomed car project: False starts and wrong turns| GuyWhoKnowsThings


Over the past decade, many Apple employees who worked on the company's secret car project, internally called Titan, gave it a less flattering name: the Titanic disaster. They knew the project would likely fail.

Throughout its existence, the automobile effort was scrapped and rebooted several times, laying off hundreds of workers along the way. As a result of dueling views among leaders over what an Apple car should be, it began as an electric vehicle to compete against Tesla and morphed into a self-driving car to rival Google's Waymo.

At the time of his death (on Tuesday, when executives announced internally that the project was being canceled and that many team members were being reassigned to work on artificial intelligence), Apple had burned more than $10 billion on the project. and the car had reversed. to its beginnings as an electric vehicle with driving-assist features that rivaled those of Tesla, according to a half-dozen people who worked on the project over the past decade.

The car project's demise was a testament to the way Apple has struggled to develop new products in the years since Steve Jobs' death in 2011. The effort featured four different leaders and carried out multiple rounds of layoffs. But it festered and ultimately failed largely because developing the software and algorithms for a car with self-driving capabilities proved too difficult.

Apple declined to comment.

“When it started, it was about aligning the stars on something that only Apple could hit a home run on,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina schools of law and engineering, who spoke briefly with Apple about his project in 2015. “A decade later, the stars have realigned so that this is a big risk and not a big gain.”

when apple launched its car project in 2014, was among a stampede of investors, executives, engineers and companies pursuing the idea of ​​a self-driving car. After Google He began testing prototypes on public roads in California., voices across Silicon Valley insisted that autonomous vehicles would soon be commonplace. Apple did not want to be left behind.

At the time, the company was fielding questions from its top engineers about its next project, according to three people familiar with the project's origins. I had just finished the Apple Watch and many engineers were anxious to start working on something new. Apple CEO Tim Cook approved the project in part to prevent an exodus of engineers to Tesla.

Apple also needed to find new ways to expand its business. The company anticipated that iPhone sales would slow in the coming years. Cars were part of a $2 trillion transportation industry that could help Apple, which by then was a nearly $200 billion business.

Despite having a vote of confidence from Apple's CEO, team members knew they were working against a harsh reality, according to six employees familiar with the project. If it ever came to market, an Apple car would probably cost at least $100,000 and still make very small profits compared to smartphones and headphones. It would also come years after Tesla dominated the market.

The company had some conversations with Elon Musk about acquiring Tesla, according to two people familiar with the conversations. But he ultimately decided that building his own car made more sense than buying and integrating another business.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

From its inception, the project was plagued by different views on what it should be, people familiar with it said. Steve Zadesky, who initially led the effort, wanted to build an electric vehicle that would compete with Tesla. Jony Ive, Apple's design director, wanted to develop an autonomous vehicle, something members of the software team said was possible.

Apple, which by then had $155 billion in cash, spent lavishly to hire hundreds of people with expertise in machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence technology, and other capabilities crucial to making a self-driving car. The influx of people made the project one of the first Apple developed with so many new strangers into the company culture.

The automotive team, made up of more than 2,000 employees until this year, included engineers who had worked for NASA and developed racing cars for Porsche.

The group developed a number of new technologies, including a windshield that could display turn-by-turn instructions and a sunroof that would feature a special polymer to reduce the sun's heat.

To bolster morale and guidance, star executives like Ive and Mac engineering chief Bob Mansfield got involved. The company acquired several startups to join the automotive team. In 2021, to steer the project toward success, Apple put Kevin Lynch, the executive behind its popular Apple Watch, in charge of the car.

Ive and his team of designers drew concepts for a car that would look like a European minivan like the Fiat Multipla 600, which has half a dozen windows and a curved roof. It had no steering wheel and would be controlled using Apple's virtual assistant, Siri.

One day in the fall of 2015, Ive and Cook met at the project headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, for a demonstration of how the car might work. The two men sank into the seats of a cabin-like interior. Outside, a voice actor read a script of what Siri would say as the men drove down the road in the imaginary car. Mr. I asked Siri which restaurant they passed by and the actor read a response, two people familiar with the demonstration said.

But by 2016, it was clear that the automotive effort was in trouble. Zadesky left Apple and his successor, Mansfield, told the team working on the project that they would shift their focus from building a car to creating software for autonomous vehicles, three people familiar with the change said.

Apple has obtained permits from California to begin testing drives of Lexus sport utility vehicles equipped with sensors and computers. He held talks with automakers such as BMW, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz before reach an agreement with Volkswagen to provide Transporter vans for autonomous shuttles on the Apple campus.

Two more leaders took charge of the automobile effort in the following years. Doug Field, former Tesla executive, laid off more than 200 employees on the project as it leaned into efforts to build its autonomous driving system. Then Lynch, who succeeded him in recent years, reversed the company's plans and returned to his original idea of ​​​​making an electric vehicle.

Mansfield and Field did not respond to requests for comment.

Earlier this year, Apple management decided that company time was better used to work on generative AI than on the car. the company told employees in an internal meeting on Tuesday. The company said some members of the Project Titan team would be reassigned to work on artificial intelligence.

In interviews Wednesday with The New York Times, people who worked on the project praised the decision to close it and said the technology behind generative AI could be invaluable to the future of the company's important iPhone business.

Apple's dead car project will survive thanks to its underlying technologies. The company plans to take what it has learned about artificial intelligence and automation and apply it to other technologies being investigated, including AirPods with cameras, robotic assistants and augmented reality, according to three people briefed on the projects.

Although the engineers working on the automation software will work on artificial intelligence projects, other members of the automotive team have been told they will have to apply for different roles in the company.

Cade Metz contributed with reports.


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