In this excerpt, the author outlines the trials and tribulations faced by the tech giant’s Project Titan, one of the most intriguing developments under Tim Cook’s leadership.
Project Titan, one of the most ambitious and intriguing developments under Cook’s leadership, is a secretive self-driving-car project that has suffered a number of twists and turns. The super-secret project came to light in 2015 when Apple was sued by A123 Systems, an electric car battery maker based in Massachusetts, for purportedly poaching many of its engineers. “Apple is currently developing a large scale battery division to compete in the very same field as A123,” the company alleged in its lawsuit, which accused Apple of embarking “on an aggressive campaign to poach” its staff and “raid” its business. Apple was said to be taking so many of its specialized engineers that A123 was forced to close down projects of its own and “scramble to find replacement [staff] at substantial cost.”
Billionaire Apple investor Carl Icahn added fuel to the fire several months later when he penned an open letter to Cook, which acknowledged the increasing rumors surrounding an “Apple Car,” which was expected to enter the automobile market by 2020. “We believe the rumors,” Icahn wrote. “While we respect and admire Apple’s predilection for secrecy, the company’s aggressive increases in R&D spending . . . have bolstered our confidence that Apple will enter two new product categories: television and car. Combined, these two markets represent $2.2 trillion, three time the size of Apple’s existing markets.”
Cook reportedly approved Project Titan in 2014 and assigned it to Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who was then working as Apple’s vice president of product design. But discussions surrounding an Apple Car date back to 2008, when Jobs, who had recently introduced the world to the iPhone, started taking an interest in Tesla Motors and its new electric car that was making big waves in the automotive industry. Tony Fadell, former head of the iPod division, was one of the Apple executives who was a part of those discussions.
Fadell believed Apple could build a car, and he compared the design of a motor vehicle to that of a product the company had already mastered. “A car has batteries; it has a computer; it has a motor; and it has mechanical structure. If you look at an iPhone, it has all the same things,” Fadell said. Apple seemed primed to enter the automobile industry. “But the hard stuff is really on the connectivity and how cars could be self-driving,” he continued, and Jobs ultimately decided not to pursue self-driving cars, in part because the automotive industry was suffering significant hardship at the time. But five years later, Cook saw an opportunity for Apple to shake up the giant auto industry and put another dent in the universe.
Zadesky was given permission to employ up to one thousand people to flesh out the Project Titan team by early 2015, and A123 Systems wasn’t the only company Apple was poaching from; designers and engineers from the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz had also made the move to Cupertino to be a part of the team building Apple’s first car. They began by studying ways in which they could reinvent almost everything in a car, including motorized doors that opened and closed silently, virtual or augmented reality displays, and improved sensor systems that weren’t as conspicuous as the arrays of sensors on other self-driving cars. The team even investigated the possibility of reinventing the steering wheel by making it spherical—like a globe—which could allow for better lateral movement.
Apple had its sights set on Tesla talent, too. It was picking up so many former Tesla employees that Tesla CEO Elon Musk once called the Apple Car project a “Tesla Graveyard.” “They have hired people we’ve fired,” Musk told the German newspaper Handelsblatt in late 2015. “If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple.” Musk believed a car was “the next logical thing to finally offer a significant innovation” for Apple—but he warned that building a car is very difficult. Apple discovered this the hard way.
When Zadesky left Apple for “personal reasons” in January 2016, after sixteen years with the company, rumors of turmoil within the Project Titan team began to surface. It was reported that Apple Car workers were being asked to meet unattainable deadlines, while the management team was unclear on exactly what they wanted Project Titan to deliver. Zadesky’s plan was to build a semi-autonomous car, which would add some robot-driving abilities but would still rely on a human driver, while Jony Ive’s industrial design team was pushing for a fully autonomous system that would allow Apple to completely “reimagine the automobile experience.” But somehow, what started out as a plan to build its own Apple-branded self-driving car has shifted focus to building systems that would power cars built by other manufacturers.
In July 2016, Apple assigned Project Titan to Bob Mansfield, former senior vice president of Mac hardware engineering, who retired in June 2012 after thirteen years only to rejoin the company four months later, working on “future projects” as the senior vice president of technologies. It was reported in September 2016 that dozens of employees had been laid off as Apple “rebooted” the project in an effort to give it real purpose. More than one hundred employees left a month later, at which point Bloomberg reported that Apple would give its automotive initiative until late 2017 before making a final decision on its fate.
The future of Project Titan looked bleak at this point, and dreams of an Apple Car—or at the very least an Apple-powered car—were fading. It seemed as though CarPlay, the infotainment system based on iOS, which launched alongside iOS7 in 2014, was as far as Apple’s automotive efforts would extend. But like many of the Apple projects that endured rocky starts plagued by teething troubles, Project Titan lived on and grew more promising as it entered 2017.
After securing a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public roads in January 2017, Apple took its own self-driving platform to the streets. It had been baked into a handful of Lexus RX450h SUVs, each outfitted with a plethora of cameras, radars, and sensors—including a high-end Velodyne 64-channel lidar that’s designed to help marine vessels and vehicles automatically detect objects and navigate. Cook spoke about Project Titan for the first time in June 2017, when he confirmed to Bloomberg that Apple was “focusing on autonomous systems.” “It’s a core technology that we view as very important,” Cook added. “We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on.”
Apple ramped up its fleet going into 2018, and is now believed to have around forty-five autonomous Lexus SUVs, which can be spotted driving around Silicon Valley. Its self-driving vehicle technology is also being worked into a shuttle service the company has reportedly dubbed “PAIL,” an acronym for “Palo Alto to Infinite Loop,” which will transport employees between Apple’s offices around Silicon Valley. Employees familiar with the project told the New York Times that Apple will again use a commercial vehicle retrofitted with its own autonomous technology.
Right now, the status of Apple’s Project Titan isn’t clear. It may or may not be on track. But many of Apple’s biggest projects went through development hell. Apple’s retail stores, for example, were scrapped at the last minute and started over. Likewise, nothing went right for the iPhone until the last few months of its development. But Project Titan looks to be a different order of failure. It’s not just product development that has failed, but also hiring, management, and perhaps vision. It’s “the greatest failure of anything of the Tim Cook era,” said analyst Horace Dediu.
(Pages 213-217, Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House)