Yesterday, we got yet another sign that Apple is secretly developing an electric car.
The Wall Street Journal revealed that the Cupertino company has hired Doug Betts — an automotive executive from Fiat Chrysler. Betts has spent nearly 30 years in the industry and is an expert in manufacturing.
Apple has also hired Paul Furgale, whom the Journal describes as “one of the leading autonomous-vehicle researchers in Europe.”
Over the last several months, there has been a wealth of rumours, leaks and allegations about Apple’s alleged automotive ambitions. Here’s what we know so far:
It’s codenamed “Project Titan”
One of the earliest credible reports on the rumoured Apple Car came from the Wall Street Journal in February. Citing “a person familiar with its work,” the Journal reported that Apple has hundreds of people working on an electric car, codenamed “Project Titan.” It’s being headed up by VP Steve Zadesky, a veteran of Ford who helped build the first iPod, and reportedly “resembles a minivan.”
A report in The Financial Times the same week provided further details. Zadesky has apparently been making trips to Austria — potentially to find a manufacturing partner. One source told the FT that “three months ago I would have said it was CarPlay … Today I think it’s a car.”
A Reuters story, meanwhile, hinted that it would be self-driving, with a source claiming that “it’s a software game. It’s all about autonomous driving.”
An Apple employee has also reached out to Business Insider to tell us the company is working on something that will “give Tesla a run for its money.”
Development is underway in Cupertino (and maybe Ireland)
The development of Project Titan is reportedly at a secretive facility away from Apple’s main Cupertino campus. Apple Insider also claims to have found a secretive Apple development facility in the area, which includes an “auto work area” and a “repair garage.”
Apple may also be planning at least part of the car’s manufacturing in Ireland. The company is significantly increasing its presence in Cork, Ireland, where it is planning a massive new factory complex. And a job listing for a managerial role at Apple’s Cork office asks for experience in the “automotive” industry. (Though it’s worth noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself — automotive industrial experience is also prized in other manufacturing industries.)
Recent hires point to one thing
Even ignoring Betts and Furgale, recent hires by Apple — and their legal repercussions — lend more credibility to the possibility of an Apple electric car.
Apple settled a lawsuit brought against it by A123 Systems — a large-scale battery company that alleges Apple poached its employees to develop its own battery technology. These employees include Mujeeb Ijaz, the former CTO of A123, where he had specific responsibility for producing batteries for Formula 1 racing cars “with unparalleled power density.” He previously worked for 16 years at Ford, and after being hired by Apple, poached his former A123 coworkers to join the Cupertino company, the lawsuit alleged.
Apple and Tesla are also currently locked in a battle for talent, with Apple offering $US250,000 signing bonuses and huge salary increases to engineers who have worked at the electric car company. Additionally, Apple is also hiring robotics engineers to work “in a unique development team.”
Some naysayers argue that Apple isn’t interested in building an Apple car — just in providing the software for them. But numerous recent hires of individuals with decades of deep experience in the automotive hardware business suggests otherwise.
9to5Mac’s Jordan Kahn has put together an extensive list of these recent Apple hires that have experience in the hardware and electric battery business. These include Robert Gough, who previously worked on car safety systems; John Ireland, who has worked at Tesla and before that as a researcher at Ireland’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and David Perner, who previously worked as an engineer on hybrid engines at Ford.
“Evident by this long list of automotive experts,” Kahn writes, “it’s clear Apple’s ambitions go well beyond just its iOS-based CarPlay in-dash system. Well beyond software too.”
Apple is strengthening its mapping technology
Apple has a fleet of vehicles decked out with camera rigs. Following some speculation that this could be testing self-driving car technology, the company revealed that they were collecting data to improve its Maps products.
As such, the information captured will probably manifest as an Apple equivalent of Google’s Street View product — but it’s a sign that the company is continuing to invest in technologies relevant to the auto industry.
Industry chatter is growing
There’s also growing discussion within the industry about the rumoured Project Titan. The Apple Car has been common knowledge for months in certain tech circles, according to Bryan Chaffin from The Mac Observer, who says “a lot of people at the top in Silicon Valley consider it a given that Apple is working on a car.”
The CEO of Fiat-Chrysler also recently said that Apple CEO Tim Cook is “interested in an intervention in the car,” following a meeting. (It’s significant in itself that the CEO met with Cook, as the other two tech companies he met with — Tesla and Google — are both openly and actively involved in cutting edge automotive technology.)
It gels with executive interests
Multiple senior Apple employees also have significant interest in the automotive industry. The late Apple cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs always wanted to build a car, telling The New York Times before he died “that if he had more energy, he would have liked to take on Detroit with an Apple car.”
Apple design chief Jony Ive, recently promoted to the newly created position of Apple Design Chief, has been complaining about American cars for years. Ive owns a number of classic cars, according to a New Yorker profile earlier this year, and feels “disappointed with most modern cars.” As part of his promotion he will “travel more” — giving him more leeway to visit Apple’s new manufacturing facility in Ireland.
Ive is joined in his distaste for modern cars by his old friend Marc Newson, a legendary designer. Newson has previously designed a concept car for Ford — and in Autumn last year, he finally joined Apple.
In an interview last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said “there are products we’re working on that no-one knows about … And part of some of those are going to come out and be blow-away probably.”
And speaking at the Re/code tech conference in May, Apple executive Jeff Williams said that “the car is the ultimate mobile device” in response to a question about what industries the company is exploring.
Williams went on to frame his comment as relating to Apple’s in-car media platform Car Play, so it’s not a cast-iron confirmation that Apple is looking into automotive technology. But the Cupertino company was also making similarly vague statements about the “wrist” long before the Apple Watch was officially announced. Same thing with the “wallet,” which presaged the launch of Apple Pay.
We won’t see any commercial model for several years
Despite the slew of recent news, we shouldn’t expect to see an official announcement — much less an actual release — for some time. The Project Titan research facility was only set up last year, so assuming Apple does ultimately decide to bring the electric car to market, a commercial roll-out will still be several years away.
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