Apple reportedly aims to debut a fully self-driving car in 2025

Posted on

Apple Inc. insists on accelerating development of its electric car and refocusing the project on full self-driving capabilities, according to those familiar with the matter, with the aim of solving a technical challenge that has plagued the auto industry.

In recent years, Apple’s automotive team had explored two simultaneous avenues: creating a model with limited self-driving capabilities focused on steering and acceleration — similar to most current Tesla Inc cars. – or a fully self-propelled version that requires no human intervention.

Under the new leader of the effort — Apple Watch software manager Kevin Lynch — engineers are now focusing on the second option. Lynch is pushing for a car with a fully self-driving system in the first version, the people said, asking not to be identified because the deliberations are private.

It’s just the latest shift for the automotive effort, known as the Special Projects Group or “Project Titan,” which has endured strategy changes and management churn since its inception around 2014. In September, the former head of the team, Doug Field, left for a job with Ford Motor Co. after being in charge for three years. In choosing Lynch as his replacement, Apple turned to an internal manager who is not a car veteran.

By mastering self-driving cars, Apple is pursuing an industry holy grail. Tech and auto giants have spent years developing autonomous vehicles, but the possibilities have remained elusive.

Tesla, the market leader in electric vehicles, is probably years away from offering fully autonomous cars. Waymo from Alphabet Inc. has faced a wave of departures in its efforts to develop the technology. And Uber Technologies Inc. agreed to sell its autonomous driving division last year.

Internally, Apple is aiming to launch its self-driving car in four years, faster than the five to seven year timeline some engineers had planned earlier this year. But the timing is fluid, and meeting that 2025 target will depend on the company’s ability to complete the self-driving system — an ambitious task on that schedule. If Apple can’t reach its goal, it may delay a release or initially sell a car with less technology.

A spokesperson for Cupertino, California-based Apple declined to comment.

Apple’s ideal car would have no steering wheel and pedals, and the interior would be designed around hands-off driving. One option being discussed within the company is an interior similar to that of the Lifestyle Vehicle from Canoo Inc., a newcomer to the EV industry. In that car, passengers sit along the sides of the vehicle and look at each other like in a limousine.

Apple has also explored designs where the car’s infotainment system — likely a large iPad-like touchscreen — would be located in the center of the vehicle, allowing users to interact with it while driving. The car would also be highly integrated with Apple’s existing services and devices. While the company is aiming to not have a standard steering wheel, Apple has discussed equipping the car with an emergency takeover mode.

The company recently reached an important milestone in the development of 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 plans to eventually deliver in the first-generation car.

The chip was designed by Apple’s silicon engineering group — which designed the processors for the iPhone, iPad and Mac — rather than within the automotive team itself. The work involved fine-tuning the underlying software that runs on the chip to power the self-driving capabilities.

The improvements may soon find their way into on-road testing. Apple plans to start using the new processor design and updated self-driving sensors in retrofit cars it has been testing in California for years. 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 that Apple has developed in-house and consists mainly 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 save customers from fatigue on long journeys. But building a real car – for an outsider in the auto industry like Apple – requires partnerships. The company has discussed deals with multiple manufacturers and has considered possibly building the vehicle in the US

Even with recent progress, creating a fully self-driving car by 2025 is seen as very aggressive within Apple. Some people within Project Titan are skeptical about the timeline.

Security is an important piece of the puzzle. Apple is looking for stronger protections than those available from Tesla and Waymo, say engineers involved in the effort. That includes creating enough redundancy — the ability for layers of backup systems to intervene to prevent safety and power system failures.

Apple is actively looking for engineers to test and develop security features. “The Special Projects Group is seeking an experienced mechanical engineer to lead the development of mechanical systems with safety-critical functions,” reads a recent Apple vacancy. “You will use your passion to figure things out to help design safety systems and to lead the testing and countermeasures of those systems.”

As part of its efforts to accelerate the project, Apple is hiring more self-driving and automotive hardware engineers. That includes bringing in CJ Moore, Tesla’s former director of self-driving software.

In recent weeks, Apple has also engaged a climate system expert from Volvo Car AB, a manager from Daimler Trucks, battery system engineers from Karma Automotive LLC and other automakers, a sensor engineer from General Motors Co.’s Cruise LLC, automotive safety engineers from companies like Joyson Safety. Systems and several other Tesla engineers, according to information from LinkedIn and those in the know.

The company is also hiring software engineers to work on “human interaction experiences with autonomous technology,” according to an Apple job listing, suggesting it’s deep within the development of the car’s user interface. The list implies that the software being developed will be based on similar technology to the iPhone operating system.

To power the vehicle, Apple discussed it being compatible with the Combined Charging System, or CCS. That would allow Apple to tap into an extensive global network of chargers. But the approach would differ from the more proprietary charging systems it has developed for the iPhone and Apple Watch.

Apple has internally discussed several business models for its car, including creating a self-driving fleet that could compete with companies like Uber, Lyft Inc. and Waymo. The company has discussed an external design that would be similar to the Canoo if it took the fleet approach. A more likely scenario, however, is that Apple offers the cars for individual ownership.

It won’t be easy to get to that point. Apple’s auto project has suffered development issues, leadership struggles, layoffs and delays throughout its seven-year history. Field’s arrival from Tesla in 2018 brought a wave of excitement that eventually hissed. In addition to Field himself, at least four top managers will have left the project in 2021.

Some members of the group believe Field was annoyed at reporting to artificial intelligence chief John Giannandrea after the retirement of his previous boss, Bob Mansfield. Mansfield had reported directly to Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook in a part-time job overseeing auto work.

Lynch is now the fifth executive to lead the project in approximately seven years. That turnover rate is rare at Apple. For example, the virtual and augmented reality team has had one leader since that project started around the same time as the car.

Still, some engineers on the automotive team see his appointment as a positive sign, given Lynch’s ability to make the Apple Watch a core product. Lynch reports to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.

Lynch is a software manager with no automotive hardware or autonomous experience, but former Tesla executives on the project — including Michael Schwekutsch and Stuart Bowers — have a key role. Apple also hired Ulrich Kranz earlier this year. He previously led Canoo and helped oversee the development of BMW’s electric cars.

When Lynch was chosen to take over the auto project, he remained responsible for the Apple Watch operating system and some health software teams. He has remained involved in high-level decision-making while devoting much of his time to the car project.

The question now is whether a director who oversaw one of Apple’s last great things — the smartwatch — can make a car the next.

Related video: