The Apple Car Was Always Doomed

The Apple Car Was Always Doomed

Apple announced to its employees earlier this week that the long-running Apple Car project — Project Titan — is no more. The news isn’t exactly a surprise, given that the last few years have been filled with story after story after story about the project’s struggles, but a new postmortem shows that Titan floundered from the start.

The New York Times has followed the Titan saga closely, and writers Brian X Chen and Tripp Mickle put together an in-depth look at exactly what went wrong — starting, it seems, even before the project was approved. From the New York Times:

When Apple launched its car project in 2014, it was among a stampede of investors, executives, engineers and companies chasing the idea of a self-driving car. After Google began testing prototypes on public roads in California, voices across Silicon Valley insisted that autonomous vehicles would soon be commonplace. Apple didn’t want to be left behind.

At the time, the company was dealing with questions from its top engineers about its next project, according to three people familiar with the project’s origins. It had just finished the Apple Watch, and many engineers were restless to begin work on something new. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, approved the project in part to prevent an exodus of engineers to Tesla.

Apple also needed to find new ways to expand its business. The company was anticipating that sales of iPhones would slow in the coming years. Cars were part of a $US2 trillion transportation industry that could help Apple, which by then was a nearly $US200 billion business.

Despite having a vote of confidence from Apple’s chief executive, members of the team knew they were working against harsh realities, according to the six employees familiar with the project. If it ever came to market, an Apple car was likely to cost at least $US100,000 and still generate razor-thin profit compared with smartphones and earbuds. It would also arrive years after Tesla had dominated the market.

Apple’s proficiencies are myriad, but they aren’t exactly all applicable in the world of building cars. It’s a deeply particular company, with a design-forward focus that gives its products an elevated, professional, and expensive feel — all points that would seem to work in favour of a luxury EV. Yet its supply chains, its manufacturing proficiencies, its bread-and-butter UI/UX work, none of these transfer much to the automotive world. This disconnect, it seems, led to fracturing within the project:

From its inception, the project was troubled by differing views on what it should be, the people familiar with it said. Steve Zadesky, who initially led the effort, wanted to build an electric vehicle that competed with Tesla. Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, wanted to pursue a self-driving car, which members of the software team said could be done.

Apple, which by then had $US155 billion in cash, spent lavishly to hire hundreds of people with experience in machine learning, a type of A.I. technology, and other capabilities crucial to making a self-driving car. The influx of people made the project among the first that Apple had developed with so many outsiders new to the company’s culture.

The full piece from the Times is absolutely worth a read, as it demonstrates how even a juggernaut like Apple can be overwhelmed by simple organisational and planning issues — the kinds of things that first-year business students often think they can hand wave away. Before you embark on that startup idea, remember that even Apple can’t always make it work.

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