Behind Apple’s Doomed Car Project: False Starts and Wrong Turns


For the last decade, many Apple employees working on the company’s secretive car project, internally code-named Titan, had a less flattering name for it: the Titanic disaster. They knew the project was likely to fail.

Throughout its existence, the car effort was scrapped and rebooted several times, shedding hundreds of workers along the way. As a result of dueling views among leaders about what an Apple car should be, it began as an electric vehicle that would compete against Tesla and morphed into a self-driving car to rival Google’s Waymo.

By the time of its death — Tuesday, when executives announced internally that the project was being killed and that many members of the team were being reassigned to work on artificial intelligence — Apple had burned more than $10 billion on the project and the car had reverted to its beginnings as an electric vehicle with driving-assistance features rivaling Tesla’s, according to a half dozen people who worked on the project over the past decade.

The car project’s demise was a testament to the way Apple has struggled to develop new products in the years since Steve Jobs’s death in 2011. The effort had four different leaders and conducted multiple rounds of layoffs. But it festered and ultimately fizzled in large part because developing the software and algorithms for a car with autonomous driving features proved too difficult.

Apple declined to comment.

“When it started, it was aligning the stars on something Apple alone could hit a home run on,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor at the schools of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina, who spoke to Apple briefly about its project in 2015. “A decade later, the stars have realigned to make this a lot of risk and not a lot of gain.”

When Apple launched its car project in 2014, it was among a stampede of investors, executives, engineers and companies chasing the idea of a self-driving car. After Google began testing prototypes on public roads in California, voices across Silicon Valley insisted that autonomous vehicles would soon be commonplace. Apple didn’t want to be left behind.

At the time, the company was dealing with questions from its top engineers about its next project, according to three people familiar with the project’s origins. It had just finished the Apple Watch, and many engineers were restless to begin work on something new. Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, approved the project in part to prevent an exodus of engineers to Tesla.

Apple also needed to find new ways to expand its business. The company was anticipating that sales of iPhones would slow in the coming years. Cars were part of a $2 trillion transportation industry that could help Apple, which by then was a nearly $200 billion business.

Despite having a vote of confidence from Apple’s chief executive, members of the team knew they were working against harsh realities, according to the six employees familiar with the project. If it ever came to market, an Apple car was likely to cost at least $100,000 and still generate razor-thin profit compared with smartphones and earbuds. It would also arrive years after Tesla had dominated the market.

The company held some discussions with Elon Musk about acquiring Tesla, according to two people familiar with the talks. But ultimately, it decided that building its own car made more sense than buying and integrating another business.

Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

From its inception, the project was troubled by differing views on what it should be, the people familiar with it said. Steve Zadesky, who initially led the effort, wanted to build an electric vehicle that competed with Tesla. Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, wanted to pursue a self-driving car, which members of the software team said could be done.

Apple, which by then had $155 billion in cash, spent lavishly to hire hundreds of people with experience in machine learning, a type of A.I. technology, and other capabilities crucial to making a self-driving car. The influx of people made the project among the first that Apple had developed with so many outsiders new to the company’s culture.

The car team, composed of more than 2,000 employees by this year, included engineers who had worked for NASA and developed racecars for Porsche.

The group developed an array of new technologies, including a windshield that could display turn-by-turn directions and a sunroof that would feature special polymer to reduce heat from the sun.

To bolster morale and guidance, star executives like Mr. Ive and the head of Mac engineering, Bob Mansfield, got involved. The company acquired several start-ups to join the car team. In 2021, to steer the project toward success, Apple put Kevin Lynch, the executive behind its popular Apple Watch, in charge of the car.

Mr. Ive and his team of designers drew concepts for a car that would look like a European minivan such as the Fiat Multipla 600, which has a half-dozen windows and a curving roof. It had no steering wheel and would be controlled using Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri.

One day, in the fall of 2015, Mr. Ive and Mr. Cook met at the project’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., for a demonstration of how the car might work. The two men sank into the seats of a cabinlike interior. Outside, a voice actor read from a script of what Siri would say as the men zoomed down the road in the imaginary car. Mr. Ive asked Siri what restaurant they passed and the actor read an answer, said two people familiar with the demonstration.

But by 2016, it was clear that the car effort was in trouble. Mr. Zadesky left Apple, and his successor, Mr. Mansfield, told the team working on the project that they would be shifting their focus from building a car to building self-driving car software, said three people familiar with the shift.

Apple secured permits from California to begin test-driving Lexus sport utility vehicles outfitted with sensors and computers. It held discussions with car makers such as BMW, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz before striking a deal with Volkswagen to provide Transporter vans for self-driving shuttles on Apple’s campus.

Two more leaders took over the car effort in the years that followed. Doug Field, a former Tesla executive, laid off more than 200 employees on the project as he leaned into efforts to build its self-driving system. Then Mr. Lynch, who succeeded him in recent years, reversed the company’s plans and went back to its original idea of making an electric vehicle.

Mr. Mansfield and Mr. Field didn’t respond to requests for comment.

At the start of this year, Apple’s leadership decided that it was a better use of the company’s time to work on generative A.I. rather than the car, the company told employees in an internal meeting on Tuesday. The company said some members of the Project Titan team would be reassigned to work on artificial intelligence.

In interviews on Wednesday with The New York Times, people who worked on the project praised the decision to shutter it, saying the technology behind generative A.I. could be invaluable to the future of the company’s all-important iPhone business.

Apple’s dead car project will be survived by its underlying technologies. The company plans to take what it has learned about artificial intelligence and automation and apply it to other technologies that are being researched, including A.I.-powered AirPods with cameras, robot assistants and augmented reality, according to three people briefed on the projects.

Though the engineers working on automation software will get to work on artificial intelligence projects, others on the car team have been told they will need to apply for different roles at the company.

Cade Metz contributed reporting.


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