Technology

Apple Car Project Extends Beyond Autonomous Driving [REPORT]

The Apple car project remains mysterious and a bit confusing, though we have been hearing rumors about it for almost two years. For a long time, experts speculated that the iPhone maker was working on a full-fledged electric car with autonomous driving capabilities under the Project Titan. Then began the season of massive layoffs as Apple tried to figure out how to proceed with the project.

Apple Car Project
Image Credit: MacRumors / YouTube video (screenshot)

Apple working with CATL on automobile batteries

Apple CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg last month that the company was developing autonomous driving systems under the Project Titan rather than building Apple-branded cars. Cook described autonomous driving as the “mother of all AI projects.” He referred to it as “a core technology” for the world’s most valuable company. However, a new report suggests that Tim Cook & Company are doing more than just developing autonomous driving technologies under the Apple car project.

Citing inside sources, Chinese publication Yicai Global reports that the Cupertino company is secretly working with a Chinese battery supplier on research and development of batteries for electric vehicles. It’s a clear indication that Apple is interested in more than just developing self-driving technologies. Apple has partnered with Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL) on automotive batteries.

Sources told Yicai Global that Apple and CATL had signed a confidentiality agreement which prohibits the latter from talking about the project publicly. Apple’s involvement in developing batteries is a significant development because the battery is one of the biggest challenges in the EV industry. Apple already buys a lot of batteries for iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. But EV batteries are a different game altogether. A Tesla Model S requires the same battery power as 4000 iPhones.

What you need to know about CATL

CATL specializes in the design, development, and production of lithium-ion batteries. It’s a spin-off of Amperex Technology Ltd, which supplies batteries for Apple gadgets. CATL currently makes battery packs for electric cars, electric buses, electric trucks, and for stationary energy storage. It tripled its production capacity last year, and now aims to increase its battery output to 50GWh by 2020.

CATL claims it has more than 3,700 R&D personnel. The Chinese battery company has also been working to significantly reduce the battery production costs and to increase the charging speed by 2020. Last year, CATL demonstrated a new fast-charging solution that could charge an EV battery to 90% in just 15 minutes.

Apple car project: Where is it headed?

The iPhone maker has been giving mixed signals about the car project. Cook says it’s mainly about autonomous driving. The partnership with CATL suggests that Apple is also interested in developing advanced batteries for electric vehicles. Last year, it also poured $1 billion into Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, which should give the company access to tons of traffic data it needs to build the self-driving systems.

At this point, it is too early to say what the eventual outcome of the Apple car project would be. Would it be just an autonomous driving system that Apple would let other automakers use? Will it be a full-fledged Apple-branded electric car that would challenge Tesla? Or will it be a complete transportation platform that would change the way people use cars?

There have been speculations that Apple could offer an entire transportation experience to users with a fleet of self-driving cars. Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas says Apple has always focused on product quality and user experience by controlling both software and hardware. It is in the company’s DNA to control all aspects of a product. The Apple car project might be in disarray, and right now Apple’s top priority might be the development of the autonomous driving system. But the company might also be putting together all the pieces it would need to offer the complete transportation experience.

Apple using leased vehicles to test autonomous driving tech

For now, Apple is testing its autonomous driving systems using a fleet of modified Lexus SUVs on California roads after securing permission from the California DMV. Back in April, its entire training program for the autonomous system testing was revealed in a major leak. If Apple chooses to develop a full-fledged car or a complete transportation platform, it may have to spend billions of dollars and join hands with third-party component suppliers.

Interestingly, Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker didn’t buy the Lexus vehicles it is using to test its self-driving systems. Instead, it had leased them from Hertz’s fleet management unit Donlen. The publication added that Apple had leased six Lexus vehicles from Donlen for testing.

The move has fueled speculations that car rental enterprises such as Hertz could see new opportunities with the growth of autonomous driving technology. They could easily venture into fleet management business. These companies already have vast experience in selling, buying, and financing large fleets of cars. They also have a nation-wide network of locations to maintain and run the fleets of self-driving cars.