By Stephen Hackett
September 7, 2021 10:34 AM PT
Apple’s car project has a long track record
For years, it has been rumored that Apple has been working on a car or car-related project. Dubbed Project Titan, this project seems to have seen all sorts of stops and starts1 over the years if reports are to be believed. Way back in 2014, the project was supposedly approved by Tim Cook, with Apple veteran Steve Zadesky at the steering things.2 Zadesky left the company in 2016, but in those two short years, it seems that the project really gained traction.3 Employees were poached from several car companies, including Tesla and Mercedes-Benz.
As the team grew, news broke that Steve Jobs had been interested in looking at a car project way back in 2008, the year after the initial iPhone launched. This was confirmed by Mickey Drexler, who was an Apple board member from 1999 to 2015. Not one to miss out on the limelight, Tony Fadell also confirmed the claim to Bloomberg. Here’s Adam Satariano, writing in the fall of 2015:
Jobs and Fadell, who had collaborated on the iPod and iPhone, swapped ideas about car designs on multiple occasions. “We had a couple of walks,” Fadell said in an interview with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang. The pair posed hypothetical questions to each other, such as: “If we were to build a car, what would we build? What would a dashboard be? And what would this be? What would seats be? How would you fuel it or power it?”
For a while there, it seemed like Apple really was stepping on the accelerator,4 especially when Apple talked Bob Mansfield out of partial retirement to run the program. Mansfield had overseen numerous hardware products in his time at Apple, stretching back to 1999, and there was a certain clout his presence brought to Project Titan.
In 2016, it was reported that Apple had set up a secret vehicle research and development lab in Germany. Added to earlier stories of “motor noises” being heard outside of an Apple campus in Sunnyvale, CA, most Apple followers believed Apple was prototyping full-blown vehicles. However, just a year later, reporting took a turn, saying that Apple was now focused on autonomous systems, something echoed by Tim Cook in June 2017.
Around this time, several vehicle engineers left Apple. In 2019, some 200 Project Titan employees were laid off some six months before Apple purchased a self-driving startup named Drive.ai, which resulted in even more layoffs. To further Apple’s artificial intelligence when it comes to cars, John Giannandrea reportedly took over the project in late 2020, with Bob Mansfield leaving to enjoy retirement. (Kevin Lynch is now in the mix too, apparently.)
In short, reports of what Apple is up to here have been all over the map5 over the years. Perhaps the company is really just interested in making a self-driving system that other companies could integrate into their vehicles. There have been lots of Apple-related self-driving vehicles spotted in California over the years, after all. The more exciting possibility is, of course, Apple making a car of its own, either in partnership with a traditional car manufacturer, or all on its own.
Time will tell if either (or both!) of these possibilities come to pass, but just this month, there’s been a rash of Apple Car news. DigiTimes is reporting that Apple has been in talks with Toyota, LG Electronics and others to line up suppliers for a future project. Apple’s long-time manufacturing partner Foxconn has been in conversations about the car as well, according to Mark Gurman.
In Arizona, it’s been reported that Apple is behind the recent purchase of a vehicle testing site formerly used by Chrysler. This one is hard to write off, as it is believed that Apple has been leasing the site since 2017. Then there’s Apple’s recent hiring of two former Mercedes engineers to work in Apple’s “Special Projects Group.” The newly-minted Apple employees have expertise in the mass production of vehicles, vehicle steering, vehicle dynamics, and software management.
Then, just today, another change took place, with Doug Field leaving Apple for Ford.
If Project Titan ever results in an actual product, we’re probably still years away from seeing it, despite some of the initial conversations at Apple apparently taking place over 13 years ago.
In the meantime, it’s fun to follow the rumors and speculate, even if some Apple followers aren’t thrilled at the prospect of Apple entering the car business. Complaints of Apple taking its eye of the ball when it comes to its core products is nothing new—and they’re frequently at the center the negativity out there about Project Titan.
Of course, Mac users were worried when the iPod came out, and then again six years later when the iPhone was announced. Today, Apple is bigger than ever, and capable of working on many projects at once. I’m pretty confident that those engineers from Mercedes are not working on the Apple silicon Mac Pro. Though stranger things have happened.