Apple's Titan(ic) iCar project is dead as self-driving dream fails to materialize

Cruise is parked, Waymo is in trouble, Tesla's never quite nailed auto-autos so is China in the no-driver's seat?

After nearly a decade of work, two indictments, the departure of a senior exec, and unknown levels of expenditure, Apple has reportedly decided to cancel its not-so-secret self-driving car effort, Project Titan.

Apple hasn't publicly confirmed the decision – we've asked – but unnamed Cupertino insiders leaked news of the decision to Bloomberg, which reported it on Tuesday. News of the decision was apparently a surprise to the nearly 2,000 folks working on the iCar, some of whom are likely to be laid off.

Those who aren't tossed from the orchard will be transferred to – no surprise – work on Apple's generative AI projects, sources suggested.

Project Titan was launched in 2015, and while most people knew it to be a self-driving vehicle project, little else about the initiative was ever divulged. A price tag of $100,000 per vehicle was sometimes mentioned, as was the ambition to achieve Level 5 autonomy – a car that requires no human input to drive. In 2022 other reports suggested Apple had decided some human controls were needed. As for how nearly a decade of work on the project went for Apple, that's unclear.

In 2016 it was believed Apple had narrowed its focus to embedding self-driving software in other automakers' vehicles. But a study of Apple patents in 2022 suggested Apple had filed at least 248 patents for car parts – which made it seem like it was trying to build a full-on automobile.

Apple also suffered from a leadership shuffle over the nine years of Project Titan, which likely didn't help the initiative. Doug Field, who led development of the Model 3 at Tesla before taking a job at Apple in 2018 as the VP of its Special Projects Group (under which Project Titan fell), was poached by Ford in 2021.

Field's departure meant that Apple VP of technology Kevin Lynch had to occupy the driver's seat. Lynch reportedly told Apple staff today that Titan had fallen.

The "secret" project was even the source of legal woes for Apple, as two employees stole data related to the project in the latter part of last decade. One of the employees, Xiaolang Zhang, pled guilty to stealing trade secrets in 2022 and was sentenced earlier this month to six months in prison. The other, Jizhong Chen, was arrested in 2019. His case remains before California courts, although he now resides in China.

Self-driving cars are off the rails

Whether or not Apple's unfulfilled ambition to be first to Level 5 autonomy were ultimately behind the decision to can the project, the entire automated automobile industry is having a bit of a moment – and not a good one.

Aside from Elon Musk's annual promise that full autonomy is coming this year, the most notable self-driving failure of late comes from GM subsidiary Cruise.

A pair of pedestrian-related accidents with self-driving Cruise cars led the division to park its entire fleet late last year. Other incidents have led to Cruise vehicles blocking traffic, even driving through wet cement (and getting stuck, naturally). GM announced in January that it was significantly reducing its investment in Cruise, but claimed it remained committed to self-driving vehicles.

Google's self-driving taxi subsidiary Waymo has also hit trouble. Earlier this month Waymo recalled its vehicles for a software update after one of its cars collided with a truck. Meanwhile, attempts to expand the range of its operations in California have met regulatory problems.

Billions of dollars have been spent by some very high-profile technology companies on self-driving vehicles in recent years.

While some efforts – like Chinese web giant Baidu's robo-taxis – have met with some success, the industry has also produced injuries, lawsuits, mob violence, and predictions of more unaccounted-for carbon emissions.

After all this time and money, fully self-driving cars remain a distant prospect. ®

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