Apple’s self-driving electric vehicle is at least five years away

Company has small team working on a car with renewed ambition to eventually take on Tesla, but development is still in early stages.
Apple will take at least half a decade to launch an autonomous, electric vehicle because development work is still at an early stage (Bloomberg)
Apple will take at least half a decade to launch an autonomous, electric vehicle because development work is still at an early stage

Apple Inc will take at least half a decade to launch an autonomous, electricvehicle because development work is still at an early stage,according to people with knowledge of the efforts.

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant has a small team of hardware engineers developing drive systems, vehicle interiorand external car body designs with the goal of eventually shipping a vehicle. That’s a more ambitious goal than in previousyearswhen the project mostly focused on creating anunderlying self-driving system. The company has also added more ex-Tesla Inc. executives to the project.

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Still, some Apple engineers on the project believe the company could release a product in five to sevenyearsif Apple goes ahead with its plans. The car is nowhere near production stage, the people said, though they did warn timelines could change. They asked not to be identified discussingsensitive, internal work.The majority of the team is currently either working from home or at the office for limited time, slowingthe company’sability to develop a fullvehicle. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

An Apple car would rival electric vehicles from Teslaand offeringsfrom companies such as upstart Lucid Motors and established manufacturerslike Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benzand General Motors Co’s Chevrolet. A keydifferentiator would be Apple’sability to integrate its self-driving system, a pricey initiative that has spurredthe company to developits own software, sensorhardwareand chip technologies. The goal is to leta user to input their destination and be driventhere with little orno other engagement, according to the people familiar with the project.

Apple doesn’t manufacture its own products, and it will likely take the same approach with a vehicle. It’s unclear which company would assemble the car, though. In its first attempt about five years ago, Apple worked with engineers from Magna International Inc, a major auto industry contract manufacturer. Reuters recentlyreported that Apple is aiming to begin producing a car as early as 2024.

Apple has continued to investigatebuilding its self-driving car system for a third-party car partner rather than its own vehicle, the people said, and it could ultimately again abandon its own car efforts in favour of this approach.

Also Read : Five things to know about 'iCar', the Apple vehicle for the masses

The company first set out to build an electric car in 2014, hiring hundreds of hardware engineers for the effort before rapidly paring it backaround 2016 to focuson the self-driving car system. From2016 through2019, Apple cuthundreds of workers from theteam. However, it keptsome hardware engineers with expertise in car componentswho either stayed on the car project or worked on other initiatives.

In a sign ithas now rebooted development of a vehicle, Apple in recent months shifted an executive known for his work on vehicleinteriors and exteriors to its car team. In 2019, Applehired former Tesla engineering vice president Steve MacManus, but he initiallyworked on projects unrelated to the car.Now MacManusleadsa developmentgroup with several employees focused on car interiors, fabrics, car testingand vehicle manufacturing, people with knowledge of the matter said. Hereports toDoug Field, a former top Teslavehicle engineer who runs the Apple car project day to day.

Apple also recently hired Jonathan Sive, a vehicle engineer from BMW AG,Tesla and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, as a senior manageron the car project. In 2019, Apple tapped Michael Schwekutsch, Tesla’s former vice president in charge of drive systems, adding to a growinglist of former Tesla employees working on thevehicle effort.

Late in 2020, Apple also hired another former Tesla vice president,Stuart Bowers, according to a person familiar with the move. He led Tesla’s self-driving technology team until mid-2019 and was an executive-in-residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners until July, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Apple’s car team is filled with dozens of other ex-Teslahardware and self-driving car engineers. In total, Apple has several hundredengineers working on the project, with most of themdeveloping the self-driving car system rather than the full-fledged vehicle.

Also Read : Apple' self-driving car unit moved under artificial intelligence head

Late last year, Apple movedthe projectunder John Giannandrea,head of artificial intelligence, suggesting most of the development work remains on the underlying autonomous software.

The smaller hardware team isworking on vehicle dynamics, drive trains, safety mechanics and battery technology. It’s also trying to re-imagine a car’s interior for a future in which people ridepassively rather than steer.

In recent months, Apple has postedjob listings that indicate this vehicle work is ramping up. The company is seeking a lead engineer tointegrate“audio drivers, tuners, speakers, microphones, wired buses, power supplies, wireless communication, and antennas" into autonomous systems.

Another job listing asksforan engineer with experience in LED lighting to deliver “a fully validated system ready for volume production," suggesting that the company’s autonomous work is being designed toeventually be mass-produced. The company has also published listings for engineers to work on “high-voltage" battery systems, a key component of electric cars.

Apple’s chip unit, led byJohny Srouji, is playing a role in the car’s development, too, the people said. Since 2018, Srouji’s team has been developing a custom Arm-based chip with a heavy focus on machine learning processing to power the underlying self-driving car system.

The companyhas been testing autonomous technology on public roads since 2017. In 2019, the company’s test vehicles drove an average of about 118 miles before a human safety driver had to take control. That was up from 1mile per disengagement in 2018, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.The company has 66 cars in its fleet, according to the California DMV. That’s up from 55 permitted vehicles as of mid-2018.

First Published Date: 08 Jan 2021, 08:55 AM IST
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