It looks like Apple (AAPL) is once more exploring making a fully-fledged electric car -- eventually at least.
Back in early 2015, a slew of reports emerged stating that Apple had launched a car project (codenamed Titan) that was being led by former Ford (F) exec and iPhone/iPod vet Steve Zadesky. It was also learned that Apple had hired many other auto industry vets to work on Zadesky's team.
The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that Apple wanted to bring an electric car to market by 2019. Bloomberg indicated one could arrive by 2020.
However, by the fall of 2015, the headlines looked a lot different. By then, it was being reported that Apple was no longer trying to build a car, and simply aiming to create an autonomous driving platform. Many Titan workers were either laid off or voluntarily left Apple. Zadesky, who was replaced as Titan chief by Bob Mansfield, Apple's former hardware engineering chief, left the company in early 2016.
Tim Cook confirmed Apple's autonomous driving project in mid-2017, and -- while its fleet size is still a fraction of that of Alphabet's (GOOGL) Waymo unit -- Apple's self-driving test cars (they're retrofitted Lexus SUVs) have been frequently spotted in California. In addition, Apple was reported in May 2018 to have inked a deal with Volkswagen to retrofit Volkswagen T6 Transporter vans so that they can act as self-driving shuttles for Apple employees.
But this summer, signs have emerged that Apple is planning to launch a car, or is at least seriously considering doing so. Among them:
- In early August, an Apple patent application was uncovered for an automotive heads-up display system that superimposes augmented reality content onto the windshield (echoes of Nvidia's (NVDA) Drive IX platform) and supports FaceTime calls.
- Three weeks later, it was learned that Apple was granted a pair of car-related patents. One is related to a sunroof system, and the other is related to a "dynamic seating system" that could be automatically adjusted or made to vibrate by an in-car computer.
- Apple has re-hired Doug Field, formerly Tesla's (TSLA) VP of engineering and until earlier this year (when Elon Musk took over the role) the person responsible for overseeing Model 3 production. Apple has also hired many other former Tesla workers, some of whom have been assigned to Project Titan.
- In mid-August, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has broken quite a lot of news related to Apple products over the years, predicted that Apple would launch a car sometime between 2023 and 2025.
In addition, though it's possible that efforts other than Project Titan are responsible for much of this, Apple's R&D spending growth has been accelerating in recent quarters. Whereas Apple's GAAP R&D spend rose 15% in fiscal 2017 (it ended in September 2017), it rose 22% during the first 9 months of fiscal 2018 and was up 26% in the June quarter.
Becoming a large-scale automaker is no mean feat. On top of requiring massive R&D and manufacturing investments, it would require Apple to learn quite a few new engineering skills and build out the infrastructure needed to sell and service a large fleet of vehicles. Apple will also need to make sure its cars are safe and reliable enough to avoid damaging the world's most valuable brand. Indeed, the challenges of becoming an automaker from scratch appear to be a huge reason why Apple backtracked from its original Titan goals in 2015.
On the other hand, cars are one of the few untapped markets available to Apple that could seriously move the needle for a company of its size. Moreover, launching a car fits more with Apple's long-standing preference for creating end-to-end user experiences for its products that encompass hardware, software and services than teaming with established automakers on autonomous driving and infotainment platforms. And as it is, many of those automakers have historically been quite reluctant to surrender control over the user experience to third parties.
Technology trends such as electric vehicle adoption, the creation of powerful multi-display infotainment systems and (though it's still early) the development of heads-up displays with AR features might also be motivating Apple to build a car, given that they play to some of the company's existing hardware, software and/or services strengths. So might the potential for autonomous driving to significantly increase the amount of time car owners have to use in-car computing systems and even -- should a car require no steering wheel, pedals or traditional driver visibility -- enable car that can function as mobile offices or home theaters.
Even if Apple has decided once more to pursue building a car -- and for now, the evidence pointing to such a project is far more circumstantial than concrete -- it's quite unlikely that one will be arriving in the near future. Given all of the hiring, investments and partnerships that such a move will require, Kuo's forecast for a launch in the 2023 to 2025 timeframe sounds fairly realistic.