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The Apple Car, A $10,000,000,000 Lesson

In 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook was excited to show off a concept for a fully autonomous minivan. The car had no steering wheel and was fully autonomous with a futuristic interior. However, the project failed after 10 billion dollars. This article explores why Apple decided to make a car, its investment in the project, and the reasons behind it.

Apple has never officially acknowledged the existence of a car project, but from 2000 to 2022, they applied for 248 car-related patents, making it their second largest category after communication and navigation. They also hired a group of automotive engineers to work in a top secret lab in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk even offered to sell Tesla to Apple in 2017, but Tim Cook gave him the cold shoulder.

The mid-20s were an interesting time for Apple to enter the automotive industry, as Tesla had laid the groundwork to prove that EVS could be a viable product. Apple wanted to play their usual game of tight software and hardware integration, as their carplay had existed since 2014. Apple has toyed with making payments from the car dashboard for fuel, drive-through food, and EV charging stations. If the cars were fully autonomous, it would free up trillions of collective transport hours per year for people to use Apple apps in their cars, generating big revenue for Apple.

In a 2017 interview, Tim Cook stated that Apple was focused on autonomous systems and that autonomous cars were essentially robots. He also said that they love to integrate hardware, software, and services and find the intersection points of those because they think that’s where the magic occurs.

In 2015, CBS reported on a self-driving Dodge Caravan in San Francisco and concluded that it was leased by Apple. Apple took several steps to bring the Apple car, Project Titan, into reality, including hiring manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, McLaren, and Volkswagen. However, issues under the hood began to emerge, with Steve Zesi leaving the project and firing at least a dozen employees. Apple’s former hardware engineer, Bob Mansfield, was replaced by a former Blackberry executive to focus on autonomous driving.

In 2018, around 5,000 employees were directly or indirectly working on Project Titan. Apple ramped up testing in California, bought an autonomous driving startup, and hired multiple automotive executives from established companies like Tesla. Employees were arrested for allegedly stealing and sharing trade secrets with China. By 2022, the lack of direction in the project became palpable, and Apple software chief Craig Federi harbored significant doubts about the project.

At the end of 2023, Apple scaled back their original ambitions, focusing on a sub-$100,000 standard car and rethinking the product’s capabilities. Self-driving proved to be difficult, and the project was eventually cancelled in 2024. Key staff from Project Titan were moved into Apple’s AI Department, with many employees moving to support machine learning and other initiatives. Apple shifted its focus from the car to AI, making good money after bad investors wanted to see them focus on AI.

Apple is working on acquiring numerous AI companies to enter the AI space, but with a lack of clear direction and proper leadership, their car project seems destined to fail. Apple’s ambitious goal of achieving a fully autonomous vehicle is almost impossible, and their current focus on ongoing projects and advancements in various areas may be too late for them. However, Apple may still have the last laugh, as CNBC reports that 98% of new cars in the US have Apple CarPlay, a move they call a “trojan horse” for the automotive industry.

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