Apple is pushing to accelerate development of its electric car and is refocusing the project around full self-driving capabilities, according to people familiar with the matter, aiming to solve a technical challenge that has bedeviled the auto industry.
For the past several years, Apple’s car team had explored two simultaneous paths: creating a model with limited self-driving capabilities focused on steering and acceleration – similar to most current cars from Tesla – or a version with full self-driving ability that doesn’t require human intervention.
Under the effort’s new leader – Apple Watch software executive Kevin Lynch – engineers are now concentrating on the second option. Lynch is pushing for a car with a full self-driving system in the first version, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.
It’s just the latest shift for the car effort, known as the Special Projects Group or “Project Titan,” which has endured strategy changes and executive turnover since starting around 2014. In September, the former head of the team, Doug Field, left for a job at Ford after three years in charge. In picking Lynch as his replacement, Apple went with an internal executive who isn’t a car veteran.
In trying to master self-driving cars, Apple is chasing a holy grail within the industry. Tech and auto giants have spent years on autonomous vehicles, but the capabilities have remained elusive.
Tesla, the market leader in electric vehicles, is still probably years away from offering fully autonomous cars. Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo has suffered a rash of departures in its efforts to develop the technology. And Uber Technologies Inc. agreed to sell off its autonomous-driving division last year.
Apple is internally targeting a launch of its self-driving car in four years, faster than the five-to-seven-year timeline that some engineers had been planning for earlier this year. But the timing is fluid, and hitting that 2025 target is dependent on the company’s ability to complete the self-driving system – an ambitious task on that schedule. If Apple is unable to reach its goal, it could either delay a release or initially sell a car with lesser technology.
A spokesman for Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment.
Apple’s ideal car would have no steering wheel and pedals, and its interior would be designed around hands-off driving. One option discussed inside the company features an interior similar to the one in the Lifestyle Vehicle from Canoo Inc., an upstart in the EV industry. In that car, passengers sit along the sides of the vehicle and face each other like they would in a limousine.
Apple has also explored designs where the car’s infotainment system – likely a large iPad-like touch screen – would be in the middle of the vehicle, letting users interact with it throughout a ride. The car would also be heavily integrated with Apple’s existing services and devices. Though the company is pushing to not have a standard steering wheel, Apple has discussed equipping the car with an emergency takeover mode.
Recently, the company reached a key milestone in developing the car’s underlying self-driving system, people familiar with the situation said. Apple believes it has completed much 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 engineering group – which devised the processors for the iPhone, iPad and Mac – rather than within the car team itself. The work has included honing the underlying software that runs on the chip to power the self-driving capabilities.
The advancements could soon make their way into road tests. Apple plans to start using the new processor design and updated self-driving sensors in retrofitted cars that it’s spent years testing in California. The company currently has a fleet of 69 Lexus SUVs experimenting with its technology, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Apple car chip is the most advanced component Apple has developed internally and is made up primarily of neural processors that can handle the artificial intelligence needed for autonomous driving. The chip’s capabilities mean it will run hot and likely require the development of a sophisticated cooling system.
The hope is to develop a vehicle that can spare customers from driving fatigue when they’re on long trips. But building an actual car – for an auto industry outsider like Apple – will require partnerships. The company has discussed deals with multiple manufacturers and has considered potentially building the vehicle in the U.S.
Even with recent progress, creating a fully self-driving car by 2025 is seen within Apple as very aggressive. Some people within Project Titan are skeptical about the timeline.
Safety is a major piece of the puzzle. Apple is looking to build stronger safeguards than what is available from Tesla and Waymo, engineers involved with the effort say. That includes creating plenty of redundancy – the ability for layers of backup systems to kick in to avoid safety and driving system failures.