Apple and Alphabet rein in their autonomous car ambitions

Apple’s CEO has confirmed that the company is working on self-driving cars, but not a complete autonomous vehicle, describing that as “the mother of all AI projects”. It comes in the same week that Alphabet’s Waymo confirmed that it is abandoning its Firefly two-seater cars, to focus on more conventional designs.

CEO Tim Cook said that Apple is developing an “autonomous system,” adding that it is probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on. Cook said that autonomy is something that is incredibly exciting for Apple, but that “we’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do, but we are being straightforward that it is a core technology that we view as very important.”

As such, we’re still not really sure what Apple’s Project Titan is actually developing, although that is nothing new. Cook noted that Apple hadn’t ruled out building its own cars, but it sounds like the company is leaning more to the licensing model that Alphabet’s Waymo division is pursuing.

Currently, we know Apple has a permit from the Californian DMV to test three self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs, from which we infer that the focus is more on software than hardware. It looks as though Apple has poached BlackBerry QNX staff to work on a vehicle OS too, and that it might be working on an augmented reality head-up-display (HUD), with a VR-based simulator. Mac Rumors has a pretty good roundup of the history here.

From the outside, Project Titan has changed focus a couple of times, shifting from developing an electric car, to a pure software approach, and now potentially back to a physical product – or at least a design that could be licensed to automakers. Project Titan has been branded Silicon Valley’s worst kept secret, but while we might know of its existence, at least Apple has kept its objective under wraps – until now (sort of).
But “autonomous systems” is a rather broad term.

It is believed that scope-creep infected Titan, which led to Apple appointing veteran leadership in the form of Bob Mansfield. Reportedly, it was Mansfield who ordered that the company shift focus from complete cars to working on systems – and laid off hundreds of staff after reaching a supposed peak of a thousand Titan staff since the project’s launch in 2014.

Notably, Apple made a $1bn investment in Didi Chuxing, the Chinese ride-sharing service to which Uber conceded defeat, after shifting Titan’s development focus. One could infer that ride-sharing will be part of Titan, but Apple’s product ethos has always been about sole-ownership of a device. Sharing doesn’t seem very Apple, and even in the family context, Apple has always pushed for multi-device households – a simple matter of sales.

Elsewhere in the autonomous driving market, Waymo has announced that its Firefly concept cars are being retired. The two-seater pods, which Waymo was hoping to bring to market completely devoid of driver controls, had been built to appear friendly – and Waymo had been testing them in Texas, Arizona, Washington, and California.

Waymo is now focusing its developer resources on adapting mass-produced vehicles, like its fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which now numbers 600 vehicles. The shift away from custom vehicles suggests that Waymo is all-in on licensing its LiDAR hardware and software to the existing automakers, rather than trying to displace them in niche markets.

The announcement argues that the focus on mass-produced vehicles means “we’ll be able to bring fully self-driving technology to more people, more quickly.” With the mothballing, it seems that Waymo has ruled out developing its own complete vehicles, and will be moving into the already rather crowded automotive OEM market, with the likes of Bosch, Delphi, Denso, and Velodyne.

The send-off was full of praise for the Firefly. “Designing and building a truly self-driving vehicle from scratch, we were able to crack some of the earliest self-driving puzzles – where to place the sensors, how to integrate the computer, what controls passengers need in a car that drives itself. In answering these questions, Firefly defined some of our most recognizable features, like the dome on top of every Waymo car – by putting the LiDAR and cameras in a ventral spot, our sensors can see further and our computer can process data more efficiently.”