Abandoned History: The Apple Electric Car Project, Rest in Peace (2014-2024)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis

After a decade-long project that saw changes in approach, multiple delays, staff changes, planning and replanning, and conflicting reports, Apple’s Titan autonomous electric car project is dead. The company made an internal announcement on February 27th, 2024 which leaked to the press immediately via several Apple employees. The project’s cancellation created our most recent Abandoned History subject matter to date. Let’s start at the beginning, in 2014.

Throughout its tenure, the project maintained the Titan name within Apple. In the latter portion of 2014 the project was approved by CEO Tim Cook. Secretive hiring took place at the time, and it was rumored high-level automotive engineers joined the company. Shortly thereafter an Apple board member stated Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs (1955-2011) suggested the company could build an EV around the time Tesla arrived on the automotive scene in 2008.

Wealthy investors, market analysts, and board members were all behind Apple’s development of an autonomous EV. They considered it a natural evolution in an all-new market where the company could assert its dominance. In short order, background work took place with autonomous vehicle testing sites and self-driving experts. A product unveiling in 2019 was generally believed. Road test work began with two Lexus crossovers fitted with self-driving sensors, a sub-project called Baja.

2016 brought more Titan hires, and a statement from Elon Musk that Apple hired over 1,000 engineers for the secretive project. More recruiting occurred throughout the year, again more engineering and software experts. Notable among them was software expert Dan Dodge, previously CEO of BlackBerry’s automotive software company called QNX. 

At that point Apple claimed it would still develop and launch its own vehicle, but speculation began to surface that the project shifted goals: It would create software for use in autonomous vehicles made by other companies, and not in an “Apple car.” This was in conjunction with a report from The New York Times in September regarding a round of layoffs. Thereafter, it was reported that a team from Canadian parts powerhouse Magna International was embedded at Apple’s laboratory in California.

The following year, Tim Cook stated in a June interview that Apple shifted its focus to autonomous vehicle systems. Cook was noncommittal at the time, stating “We’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.”

A few months later, several reports surfaced that claimed Titan had a hard line in 2017: Prove practicality and viability, and determine where it was headed. 

Newly unemployed in the latter part of 2017 were roughly 17 braking and suspension engineers Apple hired for Titan. They all went to work at a new startup called Zoox, which was (and is) in development of an autonomous car. Autonomous systems work continued throughout 2017. Later in the year when the media alleged that Apple had wrapped up all development of its own vehicle, Tim Cook did not disagree. He pointed instead to the autonomous vehicle work that was ongoing.

The first self-driving vehicles running Apple software were road registered in January 2018 with California. Apple was working to find a customer for its autonomous systems, and preliminary luxury deals with BMW and Mercedes did not materialize. Through several other negotiations, light glimmered in an actual agreement with VW. In theory, Apple would equip Transporter vans with autonomous tech at Italdesign (a VW property) in Italy. 

In July that year, a federal case against a former Apple Titan project employee disclosed there were 5,000 employees focused on autonomous driving software. A month later, Apple hired away Tesla’s senior VP of engineering to lead Titan. By that time, Apple had 66 autonomous cars registered for road use, and 111 people on a list to operate the vehicles. 

A well-publicized accident occurred on September 3, 2018 when a person driving a Nissan LEAF rear-ended a Lexus RX 450h that was in autonomous mode. This confirmed Apple still used Lexus vehicles for its testing. The accident was only noteworthy as it was believed to be the first time a fully autonomous vehicle was hit by a human driver. 

There was an additional round of layoffs in early 2019, when more than 200 staff members were cut from the Titan project. This was likely in anticipation of the purchase of Drive.ai, which occurred in June 2019. The company developed its own AI-based self-driving system, and conducted a pilot program carrying public passengers between May 2018 and June 2019. Apple still owns Drive.ai today.

It was a quiet year for the Titan project in 2020 for obvious reasons, but late in the year Reuters reported Apple sought a launch date in 2024. Somewhere between spring 2018 and early 2021 the Volkswagen deal evaporated, and reports stated Hyundai was the next partner of choice for Apple’s self-driving software. The Hyundai deal got a ways down the road, as it was reported in February that a $3.59B deal would see the two use the Kia plant in West Point, Georgia to jointly manufacture cars. Autonomous off the line, the cars would not have a driver’s seat.

Both companies enjoyed a stock bump due to the exciting news. However later that same month (Februrary), Hyundai announced it was not in talks about an Apple joint venture. A representative stated plainly “Hyundai Motor is not in talks with Apple on autonomous vehicle development.” The market was not happy about such truth telling, and Hyundai stock fell over 6 percent that day, while Kia lost 15 percent.

For its part, Apple continued to make choices that seemed to conflict with its stated software mission. Like hiring Manfred Harrer from Porsche, who was Porsche’s VP of Chassis Development. Harrer’s own Linkedin profile confirms work at Apple’s SPG (Special Projects Group) since 2021, after a 13-year career at Porsche.

News slowed between 2022 and this week. There were miscellaneous reports about Apple’s use of LIDAR in autonomous software, a supply chain development happening in Korea, and rumors of a link with Toyota for a 2024 production date. At the end of 2022 Bloomberg reported full self-driving was off the table, and the goal was limited autonomous usage on large highways and interstates. 

The supposed 2024 production date was pushed again to 2028 (in theory), among reports that self-driving was no longer on the table at all. Rather the Apple software would be more basic driver assistance. Employees on Titan were shed along this timeline, down to around 2,000. It’s unclear what company would want to purchase a basic driver assistance package from Apple of all places, as manufacturers have or develop their own systems in that space.

It was the aforementioned 2,000 people who received the announcement of Titan’s cancellation on Tuesday this week. Employees within SPG on the automotive side would move to AI work, specifically generative AI projects. Layoffs will be forthcoming as Apple no longer needs automotive hardware engineers and designers. Drive.ai would also seem to be a needless expenditure at this time.

And so after a decade and some billions of dollars spent, the Apple car is no more. The market was glad to put the autonomous uncertainty to bed, as the company’s stock had increased 1 percent in value by close of market on Tuesday. Elon was glad too.

[Images: X/Twitter, Apple, Kia, VW, Lexus]

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Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Started writing articles for TTAC in late 2016, when my first posts were QOTDs. From there I started a few new series like Rare Rides, Buy/Drive/Burn, Abandoned History, and most recently Rare Rides Icons. Operating from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio, a relative auto journalist dead zone. Many of my articles are prompted by something I'll see on social media that sparks my interest and causes me to research. Finding articles and information from the early days of the internet and beyond that covers the little details lost to time: trim packages, color and wheel choices, interior fabrics. Beyond those, I'm fascinated by automotive industry experiments, both failures and successes. Lately I've taken an interest in AI, and generating "what if" type images for car models long dead. Reincarnating a modern Toyota Paseo, Lincoln Mark IX, or Isuzu Trooper through a text prompt is fun. Fun to post them on Twitter too, and watch people overreact. To that end, the social media I use most is Twitter, @CoreyLewis86. I also contribute pieces for Forbes Wheels and Forbes Home.

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3 of 32 comments
  • Bookish Bookish on Mar 01, 2024

    The headline, "Abandoned History: The Apple Electric Car Project, Rest in Peace (2014-2024)" is wildly misleading.

    It was the Apple Autonomous Car Project.

    It was the autonomous aspect that was (and is) impractical.

    The fact that it was electric is incidental.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Mar 01, 2024

      Wildly huh. At the end it was neither electric or autonomous, but driver assistance. And the original suggestion of Steve Jobs was an EV. What changes because of the word electric in the headline?

  • FreedMike FreedMike on Mar 01, 2024

    Meanwhile, Apple stock is up almost $40 from where it was a year ago. It wasn't their first bomb product (remember Newton?)

    Life goes on.

  • Jkross22 It very much depends on the dealer. Just bought a replacement for the CX9. A local dealer gave a $500 discount on a CPO car while another one gave a few thousand dollar discount but was out of the area and we had to drive 5 hours to get. The local dealer still seems to think it's 2022 and cars appreciate when sitting on the lot. I wish them luck.
  • Ajla "and the $34K price doesn't seem too steep." Respectfully disagree. This would be okay at $29K. $34k clangs into way too much.
  • FreedMike i puUut pUniZhR sTikKr oNn mY KoMMpAs aNd nOW i hEeR Eegle SkReem. (And no one knows it's made in Mexico.)
  • SCE to AUX What a farce.Besides, "patriotism" has been redefined a hundred different ways in the last 20+ years. Disagree with one of them, and you're a traitor.And for starters, Jeep is a Stellantis brand with its HQ in the Netherlands. If this persistent myth about patriotism is ever cracked, the brand is doomed.
  • MaintenanceCosts I'm definitely seeing more dealer-level discounts than I did a year ago, but not a lot of lower MSRPs.