Apple abandons an important feature in the car

Apple abandons an important feature in the car

apple car

  • After board meetings, car downgraded to Level 2+ autonomy
  • Company pushes back launch from 2026 to 2028 at the earliest

Apple Inc., reaching a make-or-break point in its decade-old effort to build a car, has pivoted to a less ambitious design with the intent of finally bringing an electric vehicle to market.

After previously envisioning a truly driverless car, the company is now working on an EV with more limited features, according to people with knowledge of the project.

Even so, Apple’s goal for a release date continues to slip. With the latest changes, the company looks to introduce the car in 2028 at the earliest, roughly two years after a recent projection, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s plans.

Apple’s secretive effort to create a car is one of the most ambitious endeavors in its history, and one of its more tumultuous. Since it began taking shape in 2014, the project — codenamed Titan and T172 — has seen several bosses come and go. There have been multiple rounds of layoffs, key changes in strategy and numerous delays.

But it remains one of the company’s potential next big things — an entirely new category for the device maker that could help reinvigorate sales growth. Apple’s revenue stalled last year as it contended with a maturing smartphone industry and a slowdown in China, its biggest overseas market.

But Apple has struggled with how to approach such a product. As of the end of 2022, the Cupertino, California-based company aimed to release a car by 2026 with advanced self-driving features for highways.

Now, after finding it wouldn’t be able to complete such a vehicle in the foreseeable future, Apple is developing more basic driver-assistance features in line with current Tesla Inc. capabilities, according to the people with knowledge of the plans. The car will use what is known as a Level 2+ system, the people said. That’s a downgrade from previously planned Level 4 technology — and, before that, even more ambitious aims for a Level 5 system.

Defining the Levels of Driving Automation

Level 0 Warnings and momentary assistance Automatic braking, blind spot and lane departure warnings
Level 1 Steering OR brake/acceleration support Lane centering OR adaptive cruise control
Level 2 Steering AND brake/acceleration support Lane centering AND adaptive cruise control at the same time
Level 3 Drive the vehicle under limited circumstances Traffic jam chauffeur
Level 4 Drive the vehicle under limited circumstances Local driverless taxi; may lack pedals or steering wheel
Level 5 Drive the vehicle in all conditions Can drive everywhere

Internally, the shift is seen as a pivotal moment for Apple’s car: Either the company is finally able to deliver this product with reduced expectations or top executives may seriously reconsider the project’s existence, the people said. Still, it’s possible that Apple reverses course again and takes a new tack.

The prior design for the vehicle called for a system that wouldn’t require human intervention on highways in approved parts of North America and could operate under most conditions. The more basic Level 2+ plan would require drivers to pay attention to the road and take over at any time — similar to the current standard Autopilot feature on Tesla’s EVs.

The company has been meeting with potential manufacturing partners in Europe to discuss the new approach. After the initial car debuts, Apple hopes to release an upgraded system later that supports Level 4 autonomy and additional regions. In that scenario, the vehicle operates totally on its own but still only in certain conditions. Level 5 means the car can drive itself anywhere under any circumstances.

The new strategy was adopted after a series of frenzied meetings that included Apple’s board, project head Kevin Lynch and Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook. The board had pressed Apple leadership about the car plan for several months during 2023, according to the people.

The car has been one of the company’s most expensive research and development projects for the better part of a decade, with Apple spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on salaries, cloud-based systems for controlling the self-driving computer, closed road testing, and engineering for both vehicle parts and chips.

Apple has spent years working on powertrains, self-driving hardware and software, car interiors and exteriors, and other key components. And yet, the vehicle has never successfully reached a formal prototype stage. Company managers are hoping that could finally happen with the new approach, according to the people.

Uncertainty has plagued the endeavor for years. When former project head Doug Field left in 2021, it was in part because he didn’t believe top executives would ever formally approve the release of a vehicle. Before Apple, Field ran engineering at Tesla. He now oversees Ford Motor Co.’s EV efforts.

Even with the new plan, some Apple executives are skeptical that a vehicle could ever provide the kind of profit margins that the company enjoys on iPhones. Still, a car in the $100,000 range would fuel revenue and help Apple plant a flag in the growing EV sector.

Apple’s tech peers have become significant players in the automotive industry. Inc. invested in Rivian Automotive Inc., which makes delivery trucks for the e-commerce giant. Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo division has ramped up work on autonomous cars. And key competitors in China, including Huawei Technologies Co. and Xiaomi Corp., recently introduced vehicles.

To date, Apple’s most significant car effort has been its CarPlay software, which lets drivers access iPhone features like maps and Siri. It’s being redesigned this year to integrate more deeply with vehicle controls and entertainment systems.

The latest plan for the car is seen internally as a Tesla “me-too product” — one that doesn’t break significant new ground — but the company hopes to make the car stand out with a sleek design, safety systems and unique user interface.

Apple once envisioned creating a car without a steering wheel and pedals, but that idea is off the table for now. The company also spent time working on a remote command center that could take over for a driver — a service that likely won’t be necessary with the reduced system.

As part of the new plan, Apple is weighing further management changes to both its hardware engineering and autonomous software teams, the people said. Aside from Lynch, an Apple veteran who also oversees the development of its smartwatch software, many of the project’s executives hail from car companies, including Ford, Porsche and Lamborghini.

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