The Apple logo on a car fuel flap in Cambodia. Editorial Credit: withGod / Shutterstock.
Electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are widely considered to be the future of the automotive industry, but could they also be the future of one of the world’s largest tech companies?
Apple’s expansion into the automotive space was only a matter of time as cars increasingly become digital mediums, something that will be exacerbated when the driver no longer has to actually drive, freeing up time to text, watch videos, or even play video games. The Cupertino-based company is already involved with automakers, who can license its CarPlay standard that enables a car’s radio or head unit to be a display and a controller for an iOS device. But building a car of its own was something that Steve Jobs had been considering since 2008.
Under the direction of Jobs’ successor, CEO Tim Cook, Apple launched “Project Titan” in 2014, a secretive program within the company that was rumored to be working on an electric vehicle and even self-driving tech. So who is in charge of Project Titan at Apple?
Initially, leading the company’s charge into the automotive space was Steve Zadesky, Apple’s VP of Product Design. Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who worked on Apple’s iPod and iPhone, was permitted to recruit upwards of 1,000 employees mainly from within Apple to work on the project. However, Zadesky stepped away from Apple and the project for personal reasons just a couple of years later in 2016, delivering the first setback for the company’s EV plans.
In place of Zadesky, Apple lured Bob Mansfield out of retirement to lead the Project Titan Apple Car team. Mansfield had previously led Apple’s hardware team before moving to a special projects role, where he worked on the Apple Watch before retiring and moving to an advisory role.
A year later, reports surfaced that under Mansfield, the Apple car project had switched its focus to autonomous systems, the basis of self-driving vehicles.
The project quickly made progress as the tech giant registered 27 self-driving vehicles with California's Department of Motor Vehicles in early 2018, up from 3 the previous year, a sign it was finally ready to widely test its vehicles outside of the lab. Apple’s self-driving and EV efforts received a major boost later in the year when Doug Field returned to Apple after a five-year stint at Tesla. Field took up a role alongside Mansfield leading the project.
By December 2020, Mansfield retired for good, pushing Apple to reorganize the team underneath its AI head John Giannandrea, with Field leading Project Titan's day-to-day operations. Since then, news about Apple’s four-wheeled ambitions has heated up with the hiring of Manfred Harrer, a Porsche exec with deep experience building vehicle chassis, including Porsche’s EV chassis, who most recently led the German automaker’s Cayenne product line.
However, in February 2021, Apple suffered another setback as Benjamin Lyon, a sensor expert and senior team manager, reportedly left the project to join space startup Astra as the company's chief engineer. Lyon had been an early Project Titan employee and was one of 11 managers who reported directly to Field.
Since the new year, 2021 has brought a wealth of news to suggest Apple is on track to build its own EV, beyond the news of Harrer’s hire, as the year kicked off with reports that Apple had been in talks with Hyundai to manufacture its EV. These talks quickly fell apart though and were replaced with rumors that the tech giant had switched gears and was courting Nissan to build its autonomous electric vehicles, a report that Nissan denies. However, the company’s spokeswomen didn’t close the door on the possibility of future collaboration, as she stated to Reuters that Nissan “is always open to exploring collaborations and partnerships to accelerate industry transformation.”
Apple’s search for vehicle manufacturing expertise continues as it reportedly aims to produce a passenger vehicle, which could include its own battery technology, as early as 2024.
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