Will Apple build a production autonomous car?

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Series of high-profile hires and emergence of potential production opportunities strengthen viability.

Any big Apple automotive hire sparks renewed interest in the ongoing will-they-won’t-they Apple car project, and the latest comes as one of the most tangible signs that the iPhone maker still sees a future for itself in automotive.

The latest recruit, in May, was reportedly Luigi Taraborrelli, the former head of chassis and vehicle dynamics at Lamborghini, whose 20-year career at the Italian supercar maker is almost certainly a massive red herring as to the type of vehicle Apple will make.

The latest thinking, reported by the likes of Bloomberg and others, is that the secretive, eight-year-long Project Titan is now exclusively an autonomous car with a launch date of 2025. Passengers will face each other in a sleek pod, or so the more recent reports suggest.

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News that the potential Apple car might not feature a steering wheel will relieve many car manufacturers, at least in the medium term. Although now largely through the full hype cycle, total autonomy is still at least 10 years away, according to analyst company Gartner, which would mean a self-driving Apple car presents little threat to the current sales model for car makers.

If Apple really does launch an autonomous car in 2025, it would be largely a test car with possibly a limited role as a public robotaxi in the manner of the Cruise Chevrolet Bolts roaming San Francisco.

Apple, of course, does have ambitions on your next car. Recently, it unveiled the latest version of CarPlay, which goes head to head with Google’s similarly ambitious Android Automotive, to take over more control than just maps, audio and phone calls.

“With our next generation of CarPlay, we’re improving the driving experience with deeper integration into vehicle hardware, allowing drivers to control their music, change the temperature and monitor their fuel levels, all from a single integrated platform,” CEO Tim Cook said on Apple’s earnings call in July.

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Apple is hoping car makers will figure that, rather than waste precious resources developing their own software, they’d be better off tapping Apple’s system, which can reach deep into the car to offer a wealth of functions such as displaying speed and economy, or provide remote services. With direct control over central processors and links to on-board sensors, autonomous driving would be the next logical step.

But the sheer number of seasoned auto executives and engineers who end up at Apple’s base in Cupertino, south-east of San Francisco, suggest that a car is Apple’s ultimate goal.

Also in May, Apple welcomed seasoned Ford executive Desi Ujkashevic, who had been director of engineering for North American programmes for the Blue Oval. In June, Apple hired Ulrich Kranz, a former BMW executive who oversaw development of the BMW i3 and i8, and later headed up Californian EV start-up Canoo.

Every so often, a slew of car people will leave, including last year the former head of Apple special projects, Doug Field, who moved to Ford. That sparks rumours that Apple has got fed up and is on the verge of cancelling, like it did with the long-developed but never-launched Apple TV.

An autonomous car would give Apple a nice long runway to solve its production problem, given that in the first few years its needs will barely run into the hundreds of vehicles, not the thousands.

The company won’t want to build the car, but neither has it had much luck persuading anyone else to, reportedly failing to reach an agreement with Hyundai.

Apple’s long-time iPhone contract makers, Taiwan’s Foxconn, could be in the frame after it completed the purchase in May of the former GM factory in Lordstown. Foxconn is keen to spread its wings in that direction and has signed up EV start-up Fisker to make the Pear budget electric car at the plant, possibly with the long-term goal of wooing Apple.

Apple has kept famously tight-lipped on the progress and ambition of its automotive exploits, but with tech rivals Sony, Huawei and Xiami joining the electric car fray and a raft of start ups – and even established marques – turning to contract manufacturers to launch important new models, the project’s feasibility is only becoming more pertinent.

Nick Gibbs

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