Apple is scaling back its autonomous car ambitions and focusing on creating self-driving software

Putting the brakes on.
Putting the brakes on.
Image: AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
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The wheels seem to be coming off Apple’s efforts to build an autonomous car.

The tech giant’s widely rumored self-driving car division, reportedly called “Project Titan” internally, is changing focus, unnamed sources familiar with the project told Bloomberg. The news organization reports that Apple is drastically scaling back its autonomous car ambitions. Although the option of building its own self-driving car isn’t entirely off the table, the company has reportedly refocused the project to develop an autonomous driving system that gives Apple flexibility to partner with existing carmakers.

Since the company’s autonomous car initiative was launched in 2014, Apple has poached many battery, machine vision and automobile industry experts and veterans. Initially, the complete self-driving car was meant to be competed by 2020.

Speculations of the shift to software first started swirling in July, when Apple hired the former head of Blackberry’s automotive software division. Now, Bloomberg reports, executives have given the car team an ultimatum of the end of 2017 to “prove the feasibility of the self-driving system and decide on a final direction.” An Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the report.

The project showed the first signs of struggle when project head Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer and early iPod designer, left Titan in early 2016. Soon after his replacement, Bob Mansfield, took the reigns in April, he suggested a move away from directly competing with the likes of Tesla—and instead diverting efforts toward the underlying self-driving platform.

By mid-September, the New York Times reported that Apple had started laying off dozens of car division employees. A month on, hundreds have left the team of 1,000 people. Some were reassigned, some were let go, and others resigned, according to Bloomberg’s sources. Still, the size of the team remains relatively stable because Apple has hired people who are aligned with the new focus, according to Bloomberg.

Apple reportedly struggled to “tackle complex automotive supply chains,” a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg. With the likes of Tesla and Uber already testing their self-driving cars, companies outside the car industry simply aren’t able to keep up.

The sector may also have limited allure for denizens of Silicon Valley. Mobile and software companies are used to having huge profit margins, while players in the car industry rarely make over 10% on net margins. Google has already decided not to make a car, but instead is focusing on creating an AI driver. Now, Apple seems to be following in its footsteps.