It turns out building an iPhone is not the same as building a car.
For about two years the automotive industry was captivated by the idea of a self-driving electric car from Apple. The tech company never confirmed that it was developing a car, which was said to be known internally as “Project Titan.” But leaked info from anonymous sources along with the hiring of former high-level auto industry workers all but confirmed the company’s intentions. And then, just this week, a report from Bloomberg indicated that the car had been killed, or, as the tech world likes to say, Apple decided to “pivot.”
As we knew it, Project Titan had a lifespan of just two years, kicking off in 2014 and dying in 2016. That’s a short amount of time to start and end the massive undertaking that is building a car from the ground up, especially one that’s powered by electricity and drives itself. Why did Apple decide to pivot from building its own car to (potentially) crafting self-driving software? To us it’s a combination of arrogance and over-reliance on the software side of things. Tech companies are known for making lofty proclamations that leave those outside of Silicon Valley snickering. Take the launch of the iPhone 7 last month, for example.
At the event introducing the new phone, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller labeled the omission of the headphone jack an act of courage. Seriously. "The reason to move on: courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us," he told the crowd. This is an extreme example of corporate hubris. But Apple has made some moves that take actual courage, such as kicking off the age of the smartphone and convincing people to shift from physical copies of music to digital ones. But building a smartphone isn’t the same as building a car, a fact which the folks at Apple may not have understood fully. Tony Fadell, the man known as the father of the iPod and iPhone, made this evident in a 2015 interview with Bloomberg.
In the interview Fadell talks about how he and Steve Jobs discussed the prospect of Apple building a car back in 2008. The two batted around complex questions that have vexed the brightest minds in the automotive industry for decades, such as, “What would seats be?” Fadell compared a motor vehicle to an iPhone, highlighting the similarities between the two: both have batteries, a computer, a motor and mechanical structure. He then went on to say this: “So if you try and say and scale it up and go, ‘Oh my god, I can make a car with those same components,’ there’s some truth to that.” Thinking that the blueprint for building a car is the same as the blueprint for building an iPhone is idiotic.
Fadell hasn’t worked at Apple since 2008, but it appears the idea of scaling an iPhone into an iCar was still floating around the company’s Cupertino HQ. COO Jeff Williams said last year that, “The car is the ultimate mobile device.” Apple’s arrogance was also evident in the leaked development timeline for Project Titan, which originally had the car debuting in 2020. That date was later moved up to 2019. A tech company thinking it could build a car from scratch in five years is impressive. A tech company thinking it could build the world’s first autonomous EV from scratch in five years is delusional. Combine a skewed view on what a car is with a smartphone's development plan and it’s not hard to see why Project Titan flamed out so quickly.
Another reason Project Titan became Attack on Titan was because of Apple’s over-reliance on the software side of things. Now when it comes to a self-driving car, the software that powers it is extremely important. The same thing is true with a smartphone. If iOS was objectively crap then the iPhone wouldn’t have taken off the way it did. Likewise, Apple couldn’t build a beautiful car of the future and have its operating system always crashing. It made total sense that Apple would go on a hiring frenzy, scooping up thousands of engineers to work on Titan. But what we never heard about was the boring stuff that goes into car manufacturing.
Where was the talk of building or buying a factory to build the Apple Car in? How come we never heard about the company signing deals with parts manufacturers? The most we ever heard regarding that part of Project Titan was the hiring of Doug Betts, an auto industry veteran with experience in high-level manufacturing posts, and news of the company leasing an old Pepsi factory. The problem for Apple is that it doesn't actually build its own devices. Third parties like Foxconn handle the manufacturing. When it comes to building a car you need a factory. Even Tesla, the gold standard for auto industry "disruption," has its own manufacturing facility. Software in a self-driving car is important, but you also need parts and a place to build the thing.
It takes courage for a tech company to try and barge its way into the automotive industry. For that we commend Apple and hope that Project Titan is fully finished in one way or another. The company has legitimately changed the world with its products, and we don’t doubt that it will have an impact on the automotive industry. Hopefully with the decision to scale back Titan comes a decision for the project’s head honchos to take a step back. There’s no shame in giving such an ambitious project, be it self-driving software or something else, time to gestate. Even the most basic and boring cars are complex and take time to develop, and Apple isn’t exactly known for building anything that’s basic or boring.