How indecision and hubris killed the Apple car


A Canoo Lifestyle Vehicle
One Apple car prototype reportedly looked something like one of Canoo's microbus-style vehicles.
Photo: Canoo

The history of the Apple car is littered with wild prototypes, astonishing hubris and a deadly dose of crippling indecision, according to a damning report that offers the best picture yet of the secretive Project Titan.

It sounds like many Apple employees — and even key execs — viewed the self-driving car project as a doomed effort nearly from the start.

“The big arc was poor leadership that let the program linger, while everyone else in Apple was cringing,” said an anonymous Apple executive who worked on Project Titan.

If you want to know how a massive research and development project can crash and burn, this new behind-the-scenes account of Project Titan will show you how. It’s filled with gory details of unachievable goals, chaotic management, bad decisions (and sometimes no decisions at all).

Inside the doomed Apple car project

Apple pulled the plug on its car project in February after spending an estimated $10 billion over the last decade. While some people (like me) viewed it as the depressing death of an ambitious blue-sky project that could have transformed transportation, others touted it as a sensible move that would let Apple focus on artificial intelligence.

Bloomberg reporter Mark Gurman digs deep into Project Titan — and all the missteps and miscalculations along the road to its ignominious end — in an in-depth story Wednesday that the publication calls “a case study in indecision.” The lengthy story offers loads of background on Project Titan’s many managers and strategies.

Here are the most fascinating nuggets from this extended Apple car history lesson.

The ‘Bread Loaf’ Apple car prototype

The piece goes into detail about a pair of Apple car prototypes, including one known as “the Bread Loaf.” The description of this ambitious vehicle offers a glimpse at the lofty goals Apple had for producing a Level 5 autonomous vehicle capable of “driving entirely on its own using a revolutionary onboard computer, a new operating system and cloud software developed in-house.”

The prototype, a white minivan with rounded sides, an all-glass roof, sliding doors and whitewall tires, was designed to comfortably seat four people and inspired by the classic flower-power Volkswagen microbus … with a giant TV screen, a powerful audio system and windows that adjusted their own tint. The cabin would have club seating like a private plane, and passengers would be able to turn some of the seats into recliners and footrests.

There would be no steering wheel and no pedals, just a video-game-style controller or iPhone app for driving at low speed as a backup. Alternately, if the car found itself in a situation that it was unable to navigate, passengers would phone in to an Apple command center and ask to be driven remotely.

The hubristic quest for Level 5 autonomy caused friction

Apple started with the idea of creating a car capable of full Level 5 autonomy. This ambitious goal — to produce a vehicle that could drive all by itself — caused lots of friction within the company. Some Apple execs, including former design chief Jony Ive, pushed for a fully autonomous car, something that no automaker has yet achieved.

Others took a more pragmatic approach, accepting that even Apple couldn’t accomplish full autonomy anytime soon. But the flip-flopping and infighting didn’t help — and just wound up wasting time and money.

“It should have been either all autonomy or a wheel and pedals,” said one anonymous source.

The ‘I-Beam’ prototype

After Apple Watch software chief Kevin Lynch took the wheel, Project Titan took another turn. The new design for the Apple car sounds completely wild.

The car’s design … had become pod-shaped, with curved glass sides that doubled as gull-wing doors, and the company considered including ramps that would automatically fold out to make heavy cargo easier to load. The front and the back were identical, and the only windows were on the sides, a design choice with potentially dire consequences in the event that a human needed to do any driving. (Front and rear windows were later added.) Some people on the project called it the I-Beam.

Jony Ive wanted the Apple car in only one color: White

Former Apple design chief Jony Ive, a car aficionado who left the company in 2019, wanted to make a car with a distinctly Apple-esque design.

Under Ive, the microbus design emerged. The interior would be covered in stainless steel, wood and white fabric. Ive wanted to sell the car only in white and in a single configuration so it would be instantly recognizable, like the original iPod he’d designed….

The team played with several different ideas for the interior, including installing a pair of specialized touchscreens suspended with brackets from the ceiling to control the car from both sides of the cabin. It also engineered microphones to be placed outside the vehicle to bring external sounds into the cabin, something passengers in non-Apple cars did by rolling down a window.

“They would add all sorts of crazy features to the car and then realize those were bad ideas and pull them back out, leading to another cockpit redesign,” said another anonymous Apple executive.

Throughout the constantly changing design process, Apple reportedly built out multiple prototypes with various types of cabin interiors. And the company considered multiple partnerships and acquisitions, including buying McLaren Automotive.

“Some Apple executives believed that scooping up the British automaker, which makes a few thousand cars by hand each year and sells them to the super rich, would excite Jony Ive,” Gurman reported.

Bob Mansfield viewed Project Titan as a salvage operation

Bob Mansfield, a former Mac chief tasked with righting the Apple car’s course in 2016, apparently viewed an actual car as a no-go from the get-go:

Mansfield was among the car skeptics at Apple. His task, as he saw it, was to find out what could be salvaged from the effort. After a few months of evaluation, he decided to focus more attention on the self-driving system than on a car itself. Autonomous software, he argued, could benefit Apple in other areas, even if the company never made an actual vehicle. Other executives, notably [Apple head of corporate development Adrian] Perica, thought Apple could license such an AI system to other carmakers without dirtying its hands in the auto business itself.

This led to significant layoffs between 2016 and mid-2018. At one point, Mansfield and Apple CEO Tim Cook agreed on a scaled-back goal. Apple would produce “a self-driving shuttle made in collaboration with Volkswagen for Apple employees to use at its new headquarters in Cupertino, California.”

Ultimately, indecision killed the Apple car

The rocky road to an Apple car found many people driving Project Titan. Gurman’s story provides a roadmap for how not to produce an actual automobile. But it seems like one thing the Apple car leaders had in common was frustration that stemmed from Apple CEO Tim Cook’s waffling.

“If Bob [Mansfield] or Doug [Field, a former Tesla exec who bailed on Project Titan to work for the Ford Motor Company in 2021] ever had a reasonable set of objectives, they could have shipped a car,” said another anonymous source. “They’d ask to take the next step, and Tim would frequently say, ‘Get me more data, and let me think about it.'”

The lack of commitment made it difficult for the Apple car project to hire and keep qualified engineers.

An excellent slice of Apple car history

Gurman’s well-reported story is long on details about the history of the Apple car project. If you’re interested in everything there is to know about the Apple car, it’s an excellent read. You can find it on Apple News, headlined “How Apple Sank About $1 Billion a Year Into a Car It Never Built.”


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