Apple doesn’t like to talk about its secretive self-driving car project dubbed Project Titan. Tim Cook has only revealed that the tech giant was working on autonomous driving technology, which he described last year as the “mother of all AI projects.” However, the rumor mill has done a terrific job shedding light on the Apple car project.
Reports in the last couple of years have revealed that Apple had hired more than a thousand engineers from Ford, Tesla, General Motors, Panasonic, Bosch, and other companies for the Apple car project. However, the tech giant later let go of hundreds of employees after hitting a few speed bumps. It has since shifted the focus to developing the autonomous driving technology under the leadership of Bob Mansfield.
Even though Apple often keeps mum on its R&D projects, recent events have forced the company to give us a glimpse into the much-hyped Apple car project. The FBI recently charged a former Apple employee of stealing trade secrets related to the iPhone maker’s self-driving vehicle program.
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Xiaolang Zhang started working on the Apple car project in December 2015 to “develop software and hardware for use in autonomous vehicles.” He left Apple towards the end of April to work at a Chinese electric vehicle startup XMotors. According to the official criminal complaint, Zhang is accused of having stolen 40GB of Apple intellectual property and copied it to his wife’s laptop before leaving Apple. He was arrested earlier this month at the San Jose International Airport.
Nearly 5,000 employees have been disclosed on the Apple car project
The often tight-lipped Apple had to disclose some of the details on the Apple car project to prosecute the former employee. The court documents contain details of numerous internal databases, suggesting that the tech giant has either developed or is developing multiple items within the massive project including camera, LiDAR detection, machine vision systems, AR, vehicle climate control, and neural networking.
Out of more than 135,000 employees at Apple, about 5,000 were disclosed on the project and approximately 2,700 had “access to one or more of the databases.” Not all employees disclosed on the project can access the databases. Even after receiving disclosure, they must separately request database access unless they are the “core employee (s)” for the project.
These numbers are much higher than what the rumor mill suggested. According to rumors, Apple had slightly over a thousand engineers on the project. Further, the court documents suggest the company has siloed product development to ensure that as few people as possible understand the overall project. The lawsuit claims Zhang was part of the Compute Team that is responsible for designing and testing circuit boards to analyze sensor data.
The Apple car project relies heavily on Apple Maps. The tech giant realizes the importance of accurate mapping data for autonomous vehicles. The court documents indicate that the company is developing prototypes. These prototypes are of the individual components and systems rather than the full-fledged car. Apple could design the car in the future if it wants to.
Apple will eventually build its own car
According to Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi, Apple is spending $500 million to $1 billion a year on the Apple car project. Last year, the tech giant spent a total of $12.7 billion on R&D. Separately, Guggenheim Securities analyst Robert Cihra argues that cars might be outside of the company’s core competency of Macs, iPhones, and iPads, but the autonomous vehicle is a market worth pursuing.
Cihra points out that Apple is a “product company” with expertise in the integration of hardware and software. And its brand image is similar to those of luxury car brands. The Apple car project fits the company’s product-based business model, adds Cihra. So far, the iPhone has been Apple’s main growth driver, but the smartphone market is saturating now. The Apple car could be the next growth driver given the massive size of the automobile market.
Apple is currently testing its autonomous driving systems using a fleet of 55 Lexus SUVs on public roads in California. It has also teamed up with Volkswagen to build an autonomous driving van to shuttle its employees between its campuses. Past rumors suggest Apple could license its self-driving technology to other automakers in the future. But Cihra believes Apple will eventually build its own car because it’s not in the company’s DNA to license core technologies to other vendors. It prefers to control the end-to-end user experience.