Remember when Apple was going to upend the entire car industry with a self-designed vehicle? As recently as 3-4 years ago, Apple’s internal Titan / T172 projects reportedly had over a thousand employees, a strong mandate from the top brass, and the funding to take over the world. Today, Apple announced that it would partner with Volkswagen to convert the company’s existing T6 Transporter vans into self-driving shuttles for Apple employees. This is far from the “iCar” that the rumor mill promised and that Apple, by all accounts, at one point seriously intended to deliver. It has much more in common with the ROKR — a terrible Apple-Motorola joint phone effort that attempted to combine the “ease” and “convenience” of iTunes with the forward-thinking audio and content playback capabilities of a mid-2000s candybar phone.
As the New York Times makes clear, the Apple-VW partnership has nothing to do with any productive synergy between the two companies. Apple reportedly negotiated with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Lexus, McLaren, and BYD Auto in China. In each case, the problems appear to have been similar. Apple wanted more control over the driver experience and vehicle design than its potential partners were willing to grant.
The project also suffered enormously from resets and shifting goals. At first, Apple wanted to build its own vehicle from the ground up. Then it decided it wanted to design the car, but pay someone else to manufacture it. Later, Apple prioritized working with existing vehicles, but outfitting them with Apple-designed sensors and systems. Apple did move ahead with practical self-driving tests, including winning approval to test three Lexus SUVs in the Bay Area, but it never moved forward in a partnership with Lexus partly over disagreements over which company would control the use and collection of data as well as the overall user experience.
It’s not clear what data, specifically, caused the disagreement, but we can think of two major pain points off the bat. First, Apple may not have wanted to share the self-driving data it collected from its customers with its potential manufacturing partner, for fear that the company in question would use that data to speed development of competitive self-driving cars. That’s a significant fear given how many companies are betting the farm on the idea of near-term autonomous vehicles, and the critical importance of data sets to training AIs and building a (nearly) perfect autonomous driver.
The other major potential issue concerns the use of personal data. Automotive companies and marketing firms are practically drooling at the idea of collecting personal data for advertising purposes, and the privacy policies of many cutting-edge firms explicitly allow this behavior. The overall situation has been documented by multiple sources — and we’re still at the very beginning of the “smart car” product ramp.
Volkswagen, meanwhile, doesn’t look too great either. The NYT suggests the partnership was signed as much out of a desire to rehabilitate VW’s image as anything, and given the beating the company took following its decision to cheat on emissions tests, it’s not exactly in a position to dictate terms. VW has announced significant investments into electric vehicles, and Apple’s collaboration with the company is a continuation of that trend.
The NYT reports that Apple’s overhaul of the T6 is significant, writing:
The frame, wheels and chassis of the T6 vans will remain, but Apple is replacing many components, including the dashboard and seats, said two people familiar with the project. Apple is also adding other computers, sensors and a large electric car battery, they said. The shuttles will ferry employees between two of Apple’s Silicon Valley campuses, and will include a driver behind the wheel to take control if needed, as well as an operator in the passenger’s seat tracking the van’s performance.
Executives leading Apple’s car project had told Mr. Cook that the shuttle would be completed by the end of 2018, but that deadline will be missed, one former employee said. It is unclear whether Apple’s partnership with Volkswagen will extend beyond the shuttle.
But regardless of whether Apple continues to partner with VW, the dream of an iCar — a vehicle designed by a smartphone company with the aim of completely reinventing the automotive experience — seems to be dead. As good as Apple is (or isn’t, of course, depending on your point of view) at building smartphones, it doesn’t seem to have translated that capability into vehicular dominance.
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