Apple’s attempt at building an electric vehicle has always come across as a little halfhearted, though any indication that the company has abandoned the project is swiftly replaced by renewed reports that it’s being spun up again. This week was no different as Ford announced it had scooped up Doug Field — a former Tesla engineer who served as Apple’s vice president for special projects, including Project Titan.
This allegedly spells disaster for the computer company’s automotive efforts. But the business has been down so many dead-end roads already that we’re not willing to make the same assumptions as the rest of the media. While this is likely represents a setback for Apple, it’s difficult to say how big without knowing where it was in terms of overall development. Despite launching its vehicle program in 2014, the company has literally nothing to show for its years of work.
After years of restarting and then killing its electric vehicle program, Apple has again signaled that it’s once again serious about developing something for your driveway. Ulrich Kranz, former Canoo CEO and brains behind the BMW i-cars, has reportedly been picked up by the company for its automotive team.
Apple has yet to verify the hire and Kranz hasn’t updated his LinkedIn profile. But there have been multiple reports that he’s been been taken aboard specifically for his EV expertise. Unless social networking platforms are becoming passé (fingers crossed), it’s likely that the tech company wanted to wait until it could make an official announcement accompanied by an update on development.
That’s assuming Apple is still doing a car, however.
Unaware that the inherent danger of motorsport is often what makes it popular (check the ratings for any series throughout history and count the number of driver fatalities if you’re in doubt) Roborace plans on becoming the first global championship for battery-driven autonomous cars programmed to run the course without help. Organizers are convinced that the sport will eventually yield compelling competition with teams using nothing more than their own coding acumen and self-driving hardware. Chassis and powertrains are shared between vehicles, making this a battle of real-time computing algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies.
It actually sounds kind of boring. But one of Roborace’s first live-broadcasted events opened with a bang after one of the cars pitched itself directly into a wall — suggesting organizers could still give the viewing public what it wants.
With regulatory bodies the world over forcing the automotive sector to prioritize efficiency over mightiness, industry rhetoric has gradually shifted away from the powertrain. While every brand still wants to squeeze out all available power from ubiquitous four-cylinder motors, providing excess is only a priority in a handful of cases catering directly to enthusiasts.
The idea of a big, brutish luxury car with a monstrous engine still exists, but it’s being supplanted by technology-driven features catering to tech-focused minds and the green movement. Modern luxury is based in connectivity, applications, and distancing one from the experience of driving altogether — or at least that’s what the automotive industry now seems to believe.
And they may have a point. While we’re well aware those advocating “mobility” desperately want it so that they can tap into your data (to enhance revenue using the same grimy business tactics favored by big tech firms), carmakers also need something shiny to dangle in front of consumers so we’ll buy the latest and greatest product. The tech sector is also booming right now, and the industry’s dying to get investors back on its side after seeing the Wall Street performance of EV companies — especially Tesla Motors.
Even the traditionalists at Toyota are buying into it, announcing an important push into software development as they attempt to craft the next industry-standard operating system for cars. It’s also the song Volkswagen Group has sung ever since Dieselgate. Meanwhile, Audi recently explained its own commitment to software after its parent company (VW) tasked it with ensuring the botched launches of the ID.3 and Mk8 Golf don’t become commonplace.
Always eager to slash delivery costs — especially if the government opts to stop subsidizing the company via the U.S. Postal Service — Amazon has been getting chummy with EV startups. It’s also begun exploring new business opportunities in regard to food delivery and ride hailing, resulting in sizable investments into both sectors.
On Friday, Amazon announced it will acquire California-based Zoox to help it further those goals. Coming off a staffing reduction of about 10 percent to contend with the pandemic, the company is currently focused on delivering an symmetrical, self-driving, zero-emissions vehicle that can compete on the currently nonexistent robo-taxi market. While the world’s 13th largest company (by revenue) seems like it would make good use of the property to advance its autonomous delivery program, corporate messaging seems to indicate Amazon is more interested in Zoox’s expertise in people moving.
Bavaria-based BMW says it aims to cut roughly 6,000 positions from its lineup on account of coronavirus complications. Times are tough and the manufacturer needs to tighten its belt, just like many of its peers.
The alley-oop that precedes the slam dunking of these jobs into the wastebasket will be tempting retirement packages for those of a certain age. But BMW also said it is interested in offering younger people financial assistance for full-time higher education with a guarantee of a job when they’re done — offering some amount of hope.
Last year, Toyota and Pony.ai announced a pilot project to test autonomous vehicles in Chinese cities, with an aim to continue working together on self-driving projects in Asia. The time for strengthening the relationship is now, with Pony confirming it had received a $400 million investment from the Japanese automaker as part of its latest funding roundup.
Toyota doesn’t have an exclusive arrangement with the startup and is free to work with other companies. Pony already has other investors on board, operating autonomous testing hubs in California, Beijing, and Guangzhou. However, the investment from Toyota could mean it’s about to become a whole lot more important to the business, as the pair are already discussing new ways to collaborate once they’ve finished fielding testbed Lexus RXs to sharpen the firm’s software.
General Motors’ self-driving vehicle unit, Cruise, has attracted new investors and an equity infusion of $1.15 billion as it continues work on its commercial fleet of autonomous taxis. The new investment, which effectively brings the operation’s valuation to $19 billion, is primarily fronted by Baltimore-based asset management company T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. and existing partners like SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Honda Motor Co.
“Developing and deploying self-driving vehicles at massive scale is the engineering challenge of our generation,” said Cruise CEO Dan Ammann. “Having deep resources to draw on as we pursue our mission is a critical competitive advantage.”
Back in 2015, it was rumored that Apple was sinking significant resources and manpower into an electric vehicle program that also incorporated autonomous driving. But updates on “Project Titan” have been infrequent. Apple takes pains to keep its self-driving program under wraps.
There are, however, ways to track its progress. Since Apple tests its vehicles in California, it must submit an annual report to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles outlining how many times human safety drivers retake control or interfere with the vehicle’s self-driving systems, as well as a tally of total miles driven.
Based on this metric alone, Waymo appears to be the industry leader, with “disengagements” occuring every 11,000 miles. General Motors’ Cruise came in second with roughly 5,200 miles between periods of human intervention. But what about Apple? Apparently, the firm is facing some rather strong headwinds. The company claims a human had to retake control every 1.1 miles.
Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based firm Ford pumped $1 billion into and handed responsibility for educating its self-driving vehicles, just received a go-ahead for testing in the State of California. The company gained a testing permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles on Tuesday, making its autonomous trials perfectly legal on public roads.
Ford’s current trajectory has its autonomous vehicles entering the commercial market by 2021. That’s two years after General Motors promised to do the same. However, recent events cast doubt over whether GM will be able to meet its self-imposed deadlines (some of which dictate future investments from its partners) and start mass production of computer-controlled cars by the end of this year. It’s not just GM that’s having trouble, either. A critical look into autonomous development shows many companies are struggling with advancing the technology to a point that would make it commercially viable.
The Blue Oval might be better positioned in the autonomous race than initially presumed.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak may no longer work for the company in any official capacity, but he has stayed on as a tech advisor and sounding board. When the Woz says something it usually isn’t without merit, which is why it was interesting to learn he thinks self-driving vehicles aren’t going to happen.
Previously, Apple was said to have hundreds of employees working on an electrified, autonomous vehicle as part of Project Titan. Despite having the necessary testing permits, the company shifted toward developing software for self-driving applications in 2016. CEO Tim Cook confirmed that was the firm’s new focus in 2017 but analysts and industry insiders have continued to claim the Apple Car is still quietly in development. Maybe someone should tell that to Wozniak because he seems to think the entire idea is bogus.
These days, every automaker is in the midst of a metamorphosis, eager to emerge from their chrysalis as a “mobility company.” Even brands that don’t seem bent on completely revolutionizing their business model now use the term in reference to themselves.
Ford, which has positioned itself as a mobility company ever since Mark Fields was steering the ship, is among those pushing the narrative the strongest. Fields may have been fired for having a lofty, tech-focused vision that couldn’t charm investors, but much of it carried over to Jim Hackett’s tenure as CEO. Ford desperately wants to be seen as a cutting-edge nameplate.
However, the assumption among industry experts is that it’s lagging behind General Motors in terms of autonomous driving, electrification, and the ability to tap into alternative revenue streams. We sometimes wonder how accurate those assumptions are.
We’ve been critical that self-driving systems are, ahem, “oversold” by automakers and tech firms hoping to boost their stock valuations. That doesn’t mean autonomous vehicles won’t happen, just that the timeline is probably a lot longer than the public has been led to believe. Still, it makes sense to pursue AVs. The first company to achieve legitimate self-driving will blow the hinges off a door leading to an array of new business opportunities.
General Motors, long considered a frontrunner in the autonomous race, is apparently in desperate need of a second wind. Its Cruise self-driving unit is said to be woefully behind in its attempt to bring an autonomous vehicle to the commercial market by 2019. Some GM staffers have confessed that the current system isn’t even capable of identifying whether objects are in motion or not — which seems like an important distinction for a computer-controlled automobile to be able to make.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says a new chip aimed at improving its vehicles’ Autopilot features will be available in about six months.
However, if you’re hoping the automaker is preparing to light some candles and knock its vehicles up with legitimate self-driving technology, you’ll need to keep on wishing. During a string of tweets on Tuesday, Musk explained that the new chip would be a $5,000 extra for customers who did not purchase their cars with the “Full Self-Driving” package — an automotive claim that’s about as valid as Donald Trump’s hair or Elizabeth Warren’s status as a Native American.
It has begun. Ford is finally ready to launch another batch of its faux-autonomous Domino’s pizza delivery vehicles to assess how people will interact with a self-driving vehicle. False autonomy has become a bit of a gimmick with Ford, but a necessary one. Last year, it disguised a man as a seat to assess how people would respond to a vehicle that only communicated using lights. Now it’s running with a similar strategy in a deal with the famous pizza chain, adding Postmates for good measure.
While the information gleaned from the endeavor is less important, the fact that Ford is already actively working with business partners on autonomous applications is what really matters. It’s laying the groundwork for future business opportunities.
However, if you’re worried that Ford’s pretend self-driving vehicles are a sign that it’s losing the race toward the self-driving car, don’t. In addition to the Domino’s car, the automaker is also launching blue-and-white research vehicles equipped with new self-driving hardware and software technology from Argo AI.