Apple Car rumor roundup: What you need to know about Project Titan

Ronan Glon
Apple Car rendering

An artist's conception of what an Apple car might look like.

Apple Car? iCar? Project Titan? Call it what you will: The main question surrounding Apple’s interest in cars has switched from “will they, or won’t they?” to “what will they do?” Official details are sparse and often misleading, yet it appears Apple has pried open its war chest to study the automotive industry — and wants to jump in head-first. Here’s everything you need to know about the Apple car project.

This is really happening? Apple’s building a car?

Not so fast, my friend. Despite photos of Apple cars and rumors galore, we don’t think Apple is developing a car from scratch. Instead, Apple is one of many technology companies that wants to build the autonomous technology powering vehicles of the future. A late 2017 patent application titled “Autonomous Navigation System” is meant to reduce the amount of computing power needed to operate one self-driving machines. And comments from the very top of the company also point toward Apple as a tech provider rather than car maker.

“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” company CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg in June. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He added the company’s research effort is “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”

To that end, the Cupertino-based tech giant received a permit to test self-driving cars from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in April of 2017. Shortly after, a white Lexus RX450h equipped with enough sensors, cameras, and radars to power a nuclear submarine was spotted exiting an Apple facility. Coincidence? We think not. And most recently, Apple expanded its test fleet to 27 vehicles. Clearly, something’s brewing.

Artificial intelligence will be core to tomorrow’s cars; it’s no surprise Apple wants to be involved. In early December, Ruslan Salakhutdinov (Apple’s head of A.I.) spoke at an AI-focused event in Long Beach, California. One of the topics he touched upon was a recently released study documenting Apple’s advances in using lidars (3D scanners) to help self-driving cars identify pedestrians and cyclists.

So I won’t ever see an Apple-branded car?

Hey, never say never. After all, start-ups are common in tech, and a growing pool of companies think they can be the next Ford. TeslaFaraday Future, Lucid Motors, and Karma (plus this mystery company Edison) and tech giants like Uber and Waymo are in it up to their eyeballs. Apple could be, too.

Meanwhile, Apple is working on vehicles of a sort. In August, the company revealed that it would build driverless shuttles to tootle between Apple Park, the company’s vast “spaceship” campus that opened just recently, and 1 Infinite Loop, Apple’s longstanding head office situated about a mile down the road.

Self-driving shuttles are becoming increasingly common, and offer insight into what cars of the future might look like (and how they will drive). Companies like Oxbotica and EasyMile testing out similar services in London and Paris, respectively. Las Vegas rolled out such a service recently, called Navya — and we were conveniently aboard when it crashed.

Are self-driving cars even legal?

Laws will definitely need to be written ir adapted to deal with the changes sweeping through the automotive world, and the tech giant wants to get involved in shaping regulation, too. In December of 2016, a letter from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was discovered. It offered “comments on the proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” and it contained Apple’s suggestions for how to best “protect the traveling public and keep up with the pace of innovation.”

“We’ve provided comments to the NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said at the time. “There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation, so we want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry.”

In a second letter, the company called upon its home state to toughen its policy on testing self-driving cars on public roads. It believes California should require companies to hand over more data to government officials, which could help it catch up with rivals such as Google and Uber that have been developing self-driving cars for much longer. Apple is hardly in a leadership position, unless it’s become very, very good at hiding prototypes.

Executives also asked for more details about the use of safety drivers during autonomous testing on public roads. In addition, they believe the requirements that dictate the kinds of cars companies are allowed to test should be loosened.

Fine, there’s no iCar. But humor me: What would one look like?

Motorists in the market for Apple’s automobile shouldn’t hold their breath. Realistically, Apple won’t become a full-fledged car manufacturer like General Motors and Ford — at least not in the foreseeable future. The company has some of the industry’s top minds — including a few former Tesla employees — developing something, however. For a time, rumors suggested a modular self-driving platform that Apple could sell to car and truck manufacturers, or even straight to customers. Imagine being able to retrofit your 250,000-mile Toyota Tercel with a full suite of autonomous technology!

Apple most likely won’t build a car, but it’s fun to think about what an iCar could look like. Last year, Motor Trend sat down with automotive and industrial designers at the ArtCenter College of Design’s Hillside Campus in California to gather insight on what the iCar could look like, and received mixed responses from both tech and automotive reporters worldwide. Online network ClickMechanic has a few ideas of its own, too, designboom reported. The collective has taken some of Apple’s most iconic products, past and present, and used them as inspiration for the future vehicle.

For the iCar Macintosh, for example, ClickMechanic took the “beige, plastic-like feel of the computer as well as its big, square, and angular features to create a true retro automobile.” As for the iCar G3, which is based upon the iMac G3, that rendering boasts “rounded edges and visible motors seen through the back.” Or, there’s the iCar Power, which “lends the same anodized aluminum alloy and delivers a powerful, sturdy, and industrial-looking vehicle — ideal for transporting heavy loads.”

Could Apple design powertrains?

Apple’s efforts in the automotive industry could spawn a few distinct, unusual features. Self-driving technology and streamlined user interfaces are both good bets, but the tech company might also try to latch onto the electric revolution. Sources believe Apple is developing a battery like nothing we’ve seen before.

A report claims Apple may be working with a South Korean manufacturer to develop cylindrical lithium-ion batteries with hollow centers. Why hollow? Modern batteries generate a lot of heat due to the chemical reactions taking place; a hollow design increases air flow, which dramatically improves cooling. This reduces the need for additional cooling devices, making the units lighter, simpler, and perhaps even cheaper to build over time.

The South Korean firm has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Apple, so at this time its identity is unconfirmed. However, an application filed to the European Patent Office tells us a company called Orange Power is exploring hollow battery technology, and its stable of 33 employees meshes well with Apple’s reticent nature.

Maybe Apple could join forces with an established automaker?

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We’ve heard rumors claiming Daimler, the parent company of both BMW and Mercedes-Benz, is in talks with Apple to co-develop or manufacture the iCar, but German newspaper Handelsblatt claims the negotiations have dried up. Apparently, Apple’s preference for storing vehicle data in the iCloud was a major sticking point for the automakers, both of which have recently put wireless security and data protection at the forefront. The rumors that claimed Apple was on the brink of buying British sports car manufacturer McLaren were also false.

“There wasn’t a bid from Apple. They visited. We talked. We talked about what they did. We talked about what we did. They toured. It never matured to a definitive proposition,” McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt told Reuters.

How else can Apple expand into the automotive industry?

In a way, Apple is already an enormous player in the auto industry. Millions of motorists use the company’s CarPlay software, which overrides a manufacturer’s native infotainment system and puts iOS directly in the dashboard of countless new and late-model cars. According to Reuters, Apple was also in talks with companies that manufacture electric vehicle charging stations, though detailed information regarding the negotiations hasn’t been made public.

Even if an iCar never appears, Apple’s imprint may be felt in years to come through people affected by their time working on Project Titan. For example, in California’s Silicon Valley, two veterans of Apple’s Special Projects Group named Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk have founded a startup known as Aeva, and their goal is to give eyes to self-driving cars. In essence, Aeva’s little device seeks to provide autonomous vehicles “a more complete, detailed, and reliable view of the world around them.”

Someday, there may be a little Apple in every car you drive.