We’ve known that Apple has been working on a car for around six years now. Apple always tries to do their work in secret, but whenever they attempt to enter an entirely new industry it inevitably leaks out. We haven’t heard much about ‘Project Titan’ as we believe it’s been dubbed internally, in quite some time. In fact, I thought the project had finally been axed after countless reorganizations. But just a few days ago, Reuters released a new report about Apple’s automotive efforts and it’s starting to sound like ‘Project Titan’ is back on and in full force.
1. Is this actually happening?
Apple is reportedly targeting 2024 for production, which means that we should be hearing about an Apple Car much sooner rather than later. Car production is a completely different animal compared to small devices like watches, phones, and tablets.
In order to avoid any major leaks, Apple’s going to have to unveil this product way before they ordinarily would. We should start to see hints in other new products, in fact, I think we already have started to see them.
Apple tends to drop new technologies years in advance in lower volume products as internal testing and development ramps up. One of those technologies is most definitely LiDAR. I think LiDAR is the clearest consumer-facing proof that Apple is still working on some sort of self-driving car technology. Whether or not it goes into a fully Apple-branded car is another thing.
LiDAR first dropped in iPad Pro earlier this year and eventually made it into this year’s flagship iPhones. Many believe that this is an effort for Apple to collect data and train their LiDAR technology for a set of AR or VR glasses. I think it’s much bigger than that. LiDAR is exactly the kind of technology Apple needs to develop a breakthrough ultra-safe, self-driving vehicle. We already know that Apple’s LiDAR sensor, combined with iOS and its incredible multi-camera modules is very good at mapping spaces and identifying objects along with their lengths and distances.
Apple is also hyper-focused on developing “the whole widget” as they used to say. Apple Silicon has been a major effort by the company and we’ve seen the latest fruits of their labor in the new Apple Silicon M1 Macs. An Apple Car would more than likely be built on an incredibly advanced custom piece of Apple Silicon designed for a learning AI that takes advantage of things Apple has been refining over the years like their motion coprocessors and neural engines.
So is an Apple Car happening? It sure seems like there’s too much smoke for there not to be fire. I think Apple is definitely developing new automobile tech but it could end up being some sort of unusual and very unApple licensing program depending on whether or not they can get the supply chain in a position that works for them.
2. How much could it cost?
A major sticking point for me amidst all of these ‘Project Titan’ rumors is how much this thing could cost. Apple products are always in the premium tier of their respective categories. I don’t expect an Apple-branded car to be any different. The question is though, how premium would they go? Apple is a mass-market consumer electronics company. By introducing a new visionary product at such an astronomical price, they could alienate too many customers and tarnish their brand. But on the other hand, Apple would likely use insanely high-quality materials in an Apple Car in addition to any technology on the inside.
Apple’s leather accessories are strikingly expensive. Sure many of us still buy them and collect them, but an Apple Car would require a lot more leather, a lot more metal, and a lot more glass. All of these things would hike the price up. If Apple wants to appeal to a broader array of consumers, they’ll have to trend towards the Tesla Model 3 and its $38,000 entry price tag rather than a $100,000 luxury sports car. It will be interesting to see what kind of compromises they make in a first-generation Apple Car in an effort not just to get it out the door, but to get it to a reasonable price that doesn’t make them look decadent the way the first-generation Apple Watch Edition did.
3. How long would I get updates?
Lots of people upgrade their Apple devices yearly or bi-yearly. Cars tend to stick around a lot longer than cell phones or smartwatches. Apple would surely want to update software in an Apple Car in the same way that Tesla currently does. And while Apple is good at keeping support for older devices with software updates, an Apple Car opens up a whole new can of worms.
For the sake of argument, let’s call it ‘carOS.’ Apple’s carOS would surely receive annual updates along with the rest of Apple’s product families. First-generation Apple products inevitably bite the dust earlier than their successors. The first generation iPhone only went up to iPhone OS 3.1.3, the first generation iPad only went up to iOS 5.1.1, and the first-generation Apple Watch only went up to watchOS 4.3.2. Each one aged really quickly and became slow in a short period of time. They also missed out on important new features that were added along the way. I’d like to think that Apple Cars would be built to be much more powerful and could sustain software updates for much longer periods of time than traditional Apple devices.
If Apple does make a car, I fully expect to see an annual carOS update at WWDC in the future.
4. How would I buy one?
There are lots of retail questions hanging over ‘Project Titan’ and one of them is as simple as “how would I buy one?” Tesla currently sells its cars online and delivers them to customers. They also have stores and showrooms all over the world. Apple seemingly already has the infrastructure for retail with more than 500 stores globally, but it’s not quite that simple. Most of these stores just aren’t equipped for showing off cars. There are some stores with large plazas like Apple Fifth Avenue & Apple Michigan Avenue in the US, as well as several with similar-sized spaces around the world. But the Apple Car shopping experience would probably need to be primarily online.
Apple likely wouldn’t actually sell their car in-stores, it would likely be delivered to your home or made available for pickup somewhere else locally. But Apple is unique in that it likes to control the entire process. Could Apple partner with dealerships? Would they open standalone Apple Car sales locations like they did for Apple Watch? Would Apple personally deliver cars to customers? How would a test drive work?
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to a potential retail experience. I’d expect them to do a lot with augmented reality but it’s just not the same as actually sitting in a car and taking it all in. This new class of product from Apple would definitely require an entirely new kind of retail experience unlike any we’ve seen before.
5. How would I pay for it?
Apple currently offers installment payment plans for their products and they likely would do something similar to an Apple Car. But I’m more interested in the possibilities that arise from something like the iPhone Upgrade Program. With that program, users can essentially lease their iPhone from Apple and get a new one every year. Cars are obviously much more expensive, but I wonder if it’s feasible for them to explore something like this for ‘Project Titan.’
One thing that comes to mind is Apple Card. They’ve already got a robust payment structure in place and could use it to create incentives for consumers to buy an Apple Car. Apple wouldn’t be the only automobile manufacturer to offer some sort of rewards system with a credit card – but this would likely hinge on Goldman Sachs more than Apple.
6. Would there be geniuses for Apple Car?
Tesla currently sends its own technicians to peoples’ homes when their cars have issues. You obviously won’t be able to take your Apple Car to an Apple Store and get it serviced at the Genius Bar or genius grove or whatever it’s called now. Apple could deploy an entirely new fleet of geniuses that specialize in automotive support. The same fleet could also be used when offering test drives.
Test drives and support for cars are both very different from trying a handheld device in-store or getting your iPhone fixed in the back of the store. You physically need to get in a car with another human being or invite one to your home. It necessitates a new, more personal style of service and would pose a huge challenge to Apple’s SVP of retail and people, Deirdre O’Brien. Luckily, she specializes in these two fields and is probably the perfect person to crack the code.
7. What would an upgrade cycle look like?
Lots of Apple customers like to get the newest version of the iPhone or another product every year. There has never been an Apple product like a car that a customer hasn’t been ordinarily able to upgrade annually.
This would be an Apple product, so surely there would be yearly hardware revisions? The question is really how big those annual updates would be, particularly with a second-generation Apple Car. Second-generation Apple products have always been major improvements over their predecessors.
8. Would it be a part of Apple Giveback?
When it does come time to buy a new Apple Car or retire your old one, what would you do with it? Sure you could sell it and someone could buy it used, but this new class of smart electric cars hasn’t been around long enough for us to know if their computer guts make them age faster than a traditional vehicle. Cars tend to stick around for years, even decades. We already know how quickly smartwatches age compared to traditional watches. Current and previous generation Tesla cars haven’t experienced any kind of performance issues, but it hasn’t even been ten years since the introduction of the first generation Model S. I’m not sure if the car to watch comparison actually works but it’s worth taking this into consideration how a computer on wheels ages long-term.
As mentioned earlier, an Apple Car would likely be built on Apple Silicon and we know that it lasts quite a long time. Software updates to Apple Silicon devices seem to be sustained for much longer periods of time than devices with traditional processors. Although Apple makes such drastic advances in silicon development every year that it’s still important to call into question the life cycle of an Apple Car.
Apple has made a very big deal out of its environmental initiatives, even elevating Lisa Jackson to regular prominent keynote roles. Remember when she presented from the roof of Apple Park just a few weeks back? A bunch of products that Apple has introduced recently have been made out of 100% recyclable aluminum and they make it very clear that they make an effort to recycle as many components and materials as possible. To keep on theme, Apple would have to build their car out of as much recycled and recyclable materials as possible.
An Apple Car would undoubtedly be electric and battery recycling has become an important part of a consumer product’s life cycle. We know that Tesla is working on a battery recycling program. How might Apple approach a battery replacement or recycling program?
9. Will there be refurbs?
Apple currently offers certified refurbished products on its online store. Building on the Apple Giveback question, would they take used Apple Cars and resell them? Would they get the same type of support that a brand new Apple Car would if it were purchased from Apple? There would unquestionably be a market for used Apple Cars.