That Apple is working on an automobile of some sort is perhaps Silicon Valley’s worst-kept secret. If you believe the scuttlebutt, the tech giant’s “Project Titan” now involves hundreds of workers, including specialists in autonomous-vehicle technology and battery-powered motors.
“I think companies like Apple will probably make a compelling electric car,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in an interview earlier this year. “It’s pretty hard to hide something if you hire over 1,000 engineers to do it.”
Does Apple have a real shot at competing with Tesla, not to mention the other big automakers exploring both electric vehicles and self-driving technology? If so, the company’s executives must think that something needs to change: according to a new report in The New York Times, Apple is in the midst of rebooting the whole project.
As part of that readjustment, Apple has reportedly laid off “dozens” of employees. Instead of designing a self-contained car, its engineers are now focused on “building out the underlying technology for an autonomous vehicle.”
If the Times article is accurate, it reinforces a report earlier this year from Bloomberg that suggested an autonomous-driving platform is central to Apple’s new strategy, with the creation of a full-fledged automobile still a possibility. Personnel departures and technical challenges have complicated the overall effort.
Not to stretch a metaphor too thin, but all of the above suggests that Project Titan faces some bumps in what’s becoming a very crowded road. In addition to Tesla, which is tweaking its own autonomous-driving efforts in the wake of some high-profile accidents, the roster of tech and automobile firms working on autopilot technology includes Google, Uber, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz. Uber recently launched a small fleet of self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, where it has a research lab devoted to the technology.
Based on the number of firms plunging into the space, you’d assume that the still-nascent self-driving market had lots of room to grow. But Apple’s rumored layoffs hint at something different: despite the relative newness of the technology, not to mention the huge potential install base for self-driving cars, not all of these large firms will succeed in this particular ecosystem. As with smartphones, PCs, and other tech segments, only a few companies will likely end up dominating.