Apple Car: Release Date, Tesla Rumors, Project Titan and More

Contributing Writer
Updated

The concept of a self-driving Apple car is so alluring that new rumors about such a project seem to regularly crop up. Certainly it's no secret that iPhone sales have leveled off and that Apple is looking for the next big thing, heightening speculation.

What is definite is that Apple has been testing its own autonomous vehicles using Lexus SUVs in California, where the state requires companies to notify the Department of Transportation in order to obtain permission and apprise it of any accidents while testing. Also true is that Apple has been using lidar-equipped vehicles to create high-resolution maps of highways in the U.S. (We've witnessed them on roadways in New Jersey, for example.) And Apple filed a report — "Our Approach to Automated Driving System Safety" — with federal authorities, though that report was almost completely devoid of any information.

So what is Apple's self-driving endgame? Is its Project Titan going to build a ride-sharing, self-driving iCar? Or is Apple working on an iVan? Or is the company only in it to make sure its iOS and Apple Store persist in the next generation of self-driving cars? Here are the top Apple car rumors.

Apple Car Release Date: It could be coming in 2023 (or 2025)

Apple is more secretive than the CIA, and watertight nondisclosure agreements keep even former employees from leaking information. But rumors have continued to swirl around Apple's forthcoming self-driving car and how it promises to change the world in the next decade.

Autonomous vehicles will no doubt change society. Furthermore, Apple is all about polishing and perfecting existing technology rather than, say, inventing the cellphone or laptop. So while Apple may not be first to deliver autonomous vehicles, it could ultimately deliver the best self-driving cars.

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An analyst that focuses on Apple, Ming-Chi Kuo, has been quoted as saying that the company continues to forge ahead on an Apple-branded car. Kuo's estimate last year was that Apple will launch its self-driving car between 2023 and 2025. Kuo has a long list of correct predictions about the company — often based on information from third-party suppliers — ranging from iPhone screen sizes to AirPods. Does he have an inside line this time? No one knows.

Probability: Low

The entire automotive industry recently hit the reset button on autonomous car/vehicle introductions. The main problem has been dealing with unique driving situations (so-called edge cases) that human drivers face every day. Apple has publicly said it is focused on machine learning, which is supposed to handle scenarios like horses jumping in front of cars and beds falling off trucks at 80 mph. But AI and machine-learning software has not come close to delivering on that promise, so many self-driving developers are revising introduction dates.

Furthermore, Apple looks to be a long way off from either establishing its own car manufacturing facilities or making a deal with an automaker to produce its cars.

Wait, didn’t Apple abandon its self-driving car?

After beginning work as early as 2014 and hiring numerous high-profile employees, including folks from Tesla and others from the automotive business, Apple's automotive efforts stalled. It gave up on making its own car, decided against acquiring Tesla, and couldn't make a deal with any established auto companies for them to make a car for Cupertino. Apple continues to work on software, but it is out of the self-driving car race for now.

Apple laid off 190 people on its so-called Project Titan in February 2019. The Apple-is-giving-up rumor was additionally fueled by reports from former employees about confusion and a lack of direction at Apple concerning its self-driving efforts. It wasn't so much that the company was being its typical secretive self, but rather that management truly didn't know where it was going.

Probability: Low

Apple confirmed it had reassigned nearly 200 employees working on its self-driving efforts to other projects. However, it should be noted that the company reportedly has thousands of people working on Titan in one capacity or another, and it has more self-driving test cars on the road in California than any other company (but not more testing across the U.S.).

There's no question that Apple has the ambition, funds and hubris to believe it can be a major player in the autonomous car space. Just because it has given up on building a car from the ground up, doesn't mean it has given up on making the software systems that will run self-driving cars of the future.

Is Apple going to buy Tesla?

One of the latest and most exciting rumors that gets both Tesla and Apple fans going is the prospect of Apple acquiring Tesla. This rumor is resuscitated every month or so, the most recent proponent being marketing professional Scott Galloway.

The two biggest reasons fueling the acquisition rumor now are what might be termed the Shiny Shiny argument and the Falling Stock Price argument. The first idea is based on marketing: Tesla is such a fan brand that the ultimate fan brand, Apple, will not be able to resist buying it, primarily because both companies are renowned for creating shiny products people want and love.

The Falling Stock Price argument in favor of a purchase is that Tesla is under water. It has crippling debt, continually fails to meet delivery targets, and its stock price is getting hammered. If it falls further, say, below $100, it may be an irresistible buy — minus CEO Elon Musk.

On the other hand, billionaire investor Warren Buffett said in a Fox Business interview last year that Apple acquiring Tesla was a bad idea. "It's not an easy business," Buffett said. "You can win one year and lose the next. You've got a dozen big companies out there with resources. They're going to keep coming."

Furthermore, there are serious technological differences between Tesla and Apple when it comes to autonomous vehicle designs. Alone among companies working on autonomous vehicles, Tesla believes it can rely on low-resolution video cameras and radar, whereas every other company, including Alphabet's Waymo and Apple, believe a successful and safe self-driving car will also require the use of lidar. It's not a minor difference of opinion, and it means that the work Tesla has been doing is fundamentally at odds with the work Apple has done.

Probability: Medium

Apple has more than $113 billion in cash on any given day, so Tesla is easily within reach. And Apple reportedly has considered buying Tesla before, according to one business analyst back in 2013 (but Musk wouldn't leave).

Tesla has struggled mightily with its autonomous technology. At least three fatalities have been attributed to the use of its semi-autonomous Autopilot system. Consumer Reports recently recommended that Tesla owners avoid using the cars' automatic lane-changing system, saying that it is too dangerous. The more the company struggles, the more of a takeover target it becomes.

Plus, building electric vehicles is very different from building conventional gas-powered combustion-engine cars. So Apple getting into the EV business by acquiring Tesla isn't quite the challenge Buffett believes it might be.

Still, the stock market is as much about perception as it is about reality. In other words, if buyers think Tesla is amazingly great again, the share prices will rise and effectively make Tesla an unappetizing acquisition for Apple.

Apple could be creating a robo-taxi

While abandoning the idea of an iCar that you and I could buy, Apple has nonetheless continued to focus on a more practical Apple-branded robo-taxi. According to Bloomberg and UBS, the robo-taxi industry could be worth $2 trillion by 2030. Apple would outsource the chassis and guts of its automated vehicle, and then add its own technology and skin to the compact SUV.

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While the idea has been floated many times by speculative analysts, don't forget that in 2016 Apple put $1 billion into the Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing (the company that effectively beat Uber at its own game in China). Didi has a huge 80 percent market share in mainland China, backed by a government that wants to reduce pollution and promote EVs.

Probability: Medium

Every automaker in the world wants to cater to the huge Chinese market. Apple is a major aspirational brand there. China also continues to push forward on the electrification of its automotive business, certainly more aggressively than the U.S. And while German and U.S. automakers have shunned any deal to help build Apple vehicles, Chinese manufacturers may be more open to the idea.

Apple could be building a better battery

Apple has been looking hard at the electrification of cars. Such a radical change in the direction of the automotive industry would give Apple a chance to enter the market at an important juncture. Hence, there are persistent rumors that Apple has been secretly been working on, and finally developed, a battery to beat the likes of Panasonic and Tesla.

Two years ago, rumors of unknown origin arose that Apple was talking to Amperex Technology, a Chinese lithium-ion battery company, about manufacturing a new battery -- not for smartphones, but for cars. Then some patent watchers noted that Apple applied for a patent concerning high-voltage power converters, a possibly related innovation.

Earlier this year, Apple hired some more ex-Tesla employees, including folks involved with the electric automaker's powertrain efforts.

Probability: Extremely low

For years, engineers, chemists and researchers around the world have been working on the holy grail of EVs, a battery with longer range, lower temperatures and that uses common elements (to keep the price down). The idea that Apple suddenly has found the answer seems like wishful thinking. On the other hand, it does appear that Apple has a renewed interest in electric powertrains, which may mean it hasn't completely given up on the idea of making its own autonomous EV.

Is the Apple VW Bug coming?

When upscale brands Mercedes-Benz and BMW rebuffed Apple's overtures, mainstream automaker Volkswagen welcomed Apple's advances. The timing of this rumor followed the debacle of Dieselgate, which tarnished the VW marque and initiated several criminal investigations.

Credit: VWCredit: VW

This rumor is based somewhat on fact. The New York Times reported last year that Apple started a program with Volkswagen to convert VW's T6 Transporter vans into autonomous shuttles. The shuttles, it was reported, would be used for employees as a sort of experimental test program.

A German website also said that Apple designers were working on a specially branded Apple van, but so far nothing has materialized in public. Other, unsourced reports have said that Apple will establish a self-driving shuttle in Palo Alto, California.

Probability: Zero

Volkswagen has deals and partnerships with multiple players in the electrification and autonomous vehicle space. The work with Apple is minor by comparison with projects such as the company's investment in Ford's Argo AI subsidiary. And Volkswagen is far along in its own plans to release an electric dune buggy and a van... sans Apple.

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