Killing the Apple car is depressing and sad


Front view of a glossy white luxury car with an Apple logo
Apple's now-canceled car project was one of Silicon Valley's worst-kept secrets.
AI image: Midjourney/Cult of Mac

Apple’s reported cancellation of its electric car project strikes me as one of the most demoralizing decisions the company has ever made. And I’m not sure which is worse, the Apple car cancellation, or the revelation of how Cupertino plans to reroute most of Project Titan’s brainpower.

The long-rumored Apple car was never a done deal, obviously. But it stood out as a moonshot project capable of transforming transportation and improving our everyday lives.

Now we find out that Apple won’t be going to the moon. Instead, Cupertino might be taking a me-too detour to Gibberish City.

Apple car cancellation sends a sad message

An Apple concept car
An Apple car could have brought revolutionary ideas to the drawing board.
Photo: Midjourney/Cult of Mac

Deciding where to spend your research and development money can’t be easy. And Apple reportedly spent billions on its “secret” Project Titan over the past decade. Tantalizing patent applications showed Apple scheming to eliminate blind spots, build a better automotive suspension and even craft the best bumper ever.

With Apple’s best and brightest (and a handful of cleverly poached heavy hitters from the automative world) on the job, what could go wrong? The mind reeled at how Apple — with its industrial design prowess, software smarts, materials engineering/manufacturing wizardry, and, yes, good taste — would transform the automotive industry the way it changed the smartphone world.

That all apparently came to a screeching halt Tuesday, when Apple pulled the plug on its electric car project, shocking the nearly 2,000 people working on the project, according to Bloomberg. Recently, we heard of scaled-back ambitions as Apple decided fully autonomous driving wouldn’t happen anytime soon, as well as pressure from the Apple board to either commit or quit. Project Titan also endured plenty of turnover and shifting goals over the years.

The report, based on anonymous sources, said Apple will lay off some workers and transfer others to the company’s artificial intelligence division run by John Giannandrea.

“Those employees will focus on generative AI projects, an increasingly key priority for the company,” Bloomberg reported.

So, instead of a revolutionary self-driving car, you can expect some future version of Pages to summarize your rough draft into bullet points or generate a fantastic image based on a brief word prompt.

Apple shutters Project Titan to focus on AI

Concept of an Apple car.
What we hoped the future might look like. Well, maybe not exactly like this.
Photo: Midjourney/Cult of Mac

The implications of Apple’s decision to cancel its car project seem astounding — and not a little bit depressing.

Instead of leading the way, and transforming an industry that’s already undergoing rapid change, Apple is punting on perhaps it’s most ambitious product ever. Instead, Apple apparently intends to play follow the leader in the tech industry’s buzziest sector.

That’s not to say that Apple is new to artificial intelligence. In fact, at one point, Apple CEO Tim Cook even called creating a self-driving car “the mother of all AI problems.”

More recently, Apple has taken heat for being behind on AI, or at least for being perceived that way. Cook sagely emphasized that Apple already uses AI (or Apple’s favored term, “machine learning”) in almost all of its products.

“We view AI and machine learning as core fundamental technologies that are integral to virtually every product that we build,” said Cook last August.

Apple feels pressure to get in on generative AI

How cool would an Apple car have been?
Apple had a chance to reimagine the car. It could have been great.
Photo: Midjourney/Cult of Mac

During Apple’s quarterly earnings call earlier this month, Cook signaled that Apple has big AI projects in the works, with more information coming this year.

“Let me just say that I think there’s a huge opportunity for Apple with [generative AI] and AI,” he said in response to an analyst’s question. “As we look ahead, we will continue to invest in these and other technologies that will shape the future. That includes artificial intelligence, where we continue to spend a tremendous amount of time and effort, and we’re excited to share the details of our ongoing work in that space later this year.”

That was quickly followed by news that Apple bought 32 AI startups in 2023 — more than any other tech company — and revelations about Apple’s work on an AI-powered image editor and an image-to-video animation tool called Keyframer.

Cook’s promise that Apple would reveal its AI plans also likely means we’ll see new tools built into the company’s existing software, like iOS, macOS, Pages, etc. Maybe there will even be something like Microsoft 365 Copilot, which works inside apps like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Apple is clearly playing catch-up in the generative AI department. But really, how big of a deal is that? The world already has tools for generating words and images, with varying degrees of success.

Is generative AI really all it’s cracked up to be?

I’ve experimented with ChatGPT, Midjourney and other AI tools. The results have always been mixed. Yes, you use AI to generate a gorgeous, fantastical version of a folding iPad or mythical Apple car (like the ones illustrating this opinion piece). However, the person holding the tablet or sitting in the car might have six or seven fingers. (Not that I’m against polydactyly.)

The same goes for the AI wordsmiths. Sometimes they can blow you away with their ability to spit out a page full of words based on a simple user request. Other times, a simple request returns writing that sounds convincing, but is complete and utter bullshit dreamed up (or rather, regurgitated) by a hallucinating AI.

I’m not saying Apple can’t carve out of space for itself in the generative AI space. Maybe Cupertino can do that better than anyone else. The company’s commitment to user privacy and general decency seem like a welcome addition to the AI industry.

However, Siri’s perpetual lack of smarts makes me more than a little concerned about Apple’s AI chops.

What Apple car cancellation means for Cupertino

Concept sketches for an Apple car.
Apple was reportedly exploring lots of crazy ideas for a future car.
Photo: Midjourney/Cult of Mac

Really, the AI bit is a diversion. What I find so depressing about Apple abandoning its car project is what it says about the company’s capabilities and ambitions.

It seems like a very un-Apple move.

Still, I can already hear people pointing out that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once proclaimed the awesome power of just saying no to all the right things.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on,” Jobs said. “But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Jobs’ vision for computing killed the Newton MessagePad in 1998 and, a few years later, gave us the iPhone. Anyone can see he made the right decision.

Maybe Jobs’ successor Cook looked at weakening demand for electric cars, as well as a wave of competition from Chinese companies like BYD, and decided the numbers just didn’t add up. Maybe he made the absolute right decision to cancel the Apple car, at least from a revenue perspective.

However, to my mind, pursuing generative AI instead of revolutionizing the way humans get around shows a drastic lack of ambition. Or, at the very least, a humbling acknowledgment that the laws of physics (and economics) apply even to Apple.

Killing the Apple car is a dream dashed, a challenge unmet, a moonshot unattained. And I think the future looks a little less shiny because of it.


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