The Apple Car Lives

Credit: Mac Higgins

Apple’s Project Titan has gone through a lot of ups and downs over the past six years. Today, a team at Reuters reports that the effort is still alive.

From the beginning, the project has focused on both autonomy and electrification. Reuters points to progress on the latter.

”It’s next level,” the person said of Apple’s battery technology. “Like the first time you saw the iPhone.”

Before that quote, the Reuters article does qualify this “person” as, “familiar with the companies plans.” Nonetheless, it’s amusing to read quote after quote attributed to “the person.” Apple takes secrecy seriously.

The article shares detail about “monocell” battery design that is beyond my expertise, but seems like progress.

Autonomy is less clear. Maybe Apple will build its own car. Maybe it will partner with an OEM.

“Sources have said they expect the company to rely on a manufacturing partner to build vehicles. And there is still a chance Apple will decide to reduce the scope of its efforts to an autonomous driving system that would be integrated with a car made by a traditional automaker.”

Maybe there will be many lidar sensors. Maybe there won’t?

Apple is targeting 2024 for a launch, but it might push back to 2025 because of the pandemic. Or (Reuters doesn’t speculate, but I will) because manufacturing self-driving cars is hard.

Apple has so much money I know not to ignore the trickle of news out of Project Titan. But it’s a trickle.

Apple Lidar: Designed In California, Built…Somewhere

CNBC reports that Apple is in discussions with “at least four companies as possible suppliers for next-generation lidar sensors in self-driving cars.”

The report also suggests that, “The iPhone maker is setting a high bar with demands for a ‘revolutionary design.’…In addition to evaluating potential outside suppliers, Apple is believed to have its own internal lidar sensor under development.”

Waymo managed to pull off this trick with its Laser Bear Honeycomb lidar, designed in-house and the subject of pretty intense litigation with Uber.

If anything, Apple’s hardware design strengths should make this an even easier task for Apple than for Waymo, so it seems totally plausible Apple could pull this off.

The question is: to what end?

I know very little about why Waymo started designing its own lidar, but I know they started building self-driving cars with the Velodyne HDL-64 “chicken bucket” model.

My guess is that Google began developing their own lidar several years ago not because they needed a much better sensor, but rather because they couldn’t get enough sensors of any type.

Several years ago, when Google would have begun developing its lidar program, Velodyne was one of the only lidar manufacturers in the world. And even Velodyne was severely constrained in the number of units it could produce. There was a period a few years ago when the waiting list to buy a Velodyne lidar unit was months long.

In that world, it would have made a lot of sense for Google to begin developing its own lidar program. That would’ve reduced on possible bottleneck for building self-driving cars at scale.

Fast-forward to 2019. Velodyne has taken massive investment capital to build lidar factories, and there are upwards of sixty lidar companies (mostly startups) developing sensors. Today, there isn’t the same need or urgency to develop custom lidar units. In fact, all of those lidar startups are basically doing that on their own.

So it’s not totally clear to me what Apple would gain from creating their own lidar program.

Autonomous Vehicle Roundup

Google Spent $1.1 BB on Waymo So Far: In light of Mobileye, Cruise, Otto, and Argo AI, this seems like a steal.

Ford Faked a Self-Driving Car to Test out Human-Machine Interaction: It’s not clear to me that they really needed to fake the absence of a driver.

New Robotics Grads in Pittsburgh are Making $200,000 per Year: Carnegie-Mellon University basically caused this single-handedly. The returns to city from hosting a top-flight research university are looking pretty good.

The Apple Car (System?)

One of the big open secrets in the autonomous vehicle world is Apple’s development of a car. Apple has refused to publicly acknowledge this, however, to the point that engineers widely believed to be working on the Apple car have just removed their LinkedIn profiles.

Apple CEO Tim Cook just recently opened up about this effort, a smidge, to Bloomberg.

While maintaining a determined poker face about exactly what they’re building (is it a car? an automotive operating system?), Cook talked about the convergence of autonomy, electrification, and ride-sharing.

In a very short discussion, he seems to emphasize two points. One is the importance of electrification, which perhaps points to Apple building a physical product. The other is the application of autonomy beyond cars. Maybe Apple drones are next.

Project Titan Update

One of the big mysteries in Silicon Valley is how far along Apple is with its development of a self-driving car.

Bloomberg delivers an update today, sourced entirely to “people familiar with the project.”

The immediate news is that Apple has hired Dan Dodge, the founder of QNX, presumably to lead their vehicle software efforts.

The larger story seems to be confusion at Apple, which supposedly has large software, hardware, and sensor divisions, yet is now planning to deliver automotive software.

I’m a little more impressed by what Apple’s done, even if it’s just keeping a huge engineering effort largely under wraps. I think we might see something impressive come out of it.

But mostly I’d like to see a named source willing to go on the record.

Land Grab

A major property manager just let slip that both Apple and Google are looking for large spaces, specifically for their autonomous vehicle efforts.

The comments come from Victor Coleman, the CEO of Hudson Pacific Properties, which is apparently a major Bay Area landlord.

The news is a little bit more revelatory for Apple, whose autonomous vehicle efforts have been mysterious to the point that many people (or least I) wonder whether Apple is making any headway.

“We’re seeing the Toyotas of the world, the Teslas of the world, BMWs, Mercedes. Ford now is out in the marketplace looking for space,” he said on the landlord’s quarterly investor call. “I haven’t even mentioned the 400,000 square feet that Google’s looking to take down and the 800,000 square feet that Apple’s looking to take down for their autonomous cars as well.”

That Google is looking for major space isn’t so surprising, given how public they have been about moving their AV team out from under the X umbrella.

Rumor Mill: The Apple Car

One of the great mysteries of the self-driving car industry is what, if anything, Apple is building.

A related question is where are they building it?

Like most watchers, I assumed Apple was building its car in Cupertino, and there have been rumors and leaks to that effect.

But a German newspaper recently reported that maybe Apple is building its car team in Berlin.

Working backwards, there is some logic to this.

  1. Apple is famously secretive and Berlin is more discrete and lower-profile than Silicon Valley.
  2. Germany has a lot of great automotive engineers.

Or this could turn out to be just another unsubstantiated rumor about the Apple Car.