Apple shifts focus of Project Titan to autonomous car technology

The most new hire for the secretive project may suggest that Apple is switching the focus of its car team from electric cars to autonomous ones.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters/File
A woman touches the display inside a Volvo car during the media day ahead of the 84th Geneva Motor Show at the Palexpo Arena in Geneva on March 4, 2014. Apple recently made a new hire that would suggest its secretive Project Titan is shifting gears from researching electric cars to self-driving ones.

Apple recently made a new hire that would suggest that its secretive Project Titan is shifting gears from researching electric cars to self-driving ones, Bloomberg reports.

Project Titan’s newest team member is Dan Dodge. Mr. Dodge founded QNX, an operating system company BlackBerry acquired in 2010, which developed the navigation and connected device system currently used by Volkswagen and Ford, among others. He will be joining Apple’s car research and development team lead by Bob Mansfield, another recent hire.

Apple hasn't completely abandoned efforts to design an electric car. In the future, it could decide to partner with another company to produce parts, while Apple provides the software. With a poor second quarter report and a diminishing demand for the iPhone, Apple’s top selling product, the company is putting more effort into new product development. As a result Apple invested $2.6 billion in research and development over the past three months, up more than a quarter from the same time last year, according to Bloomberg.

“The products that are in R&D, there is quite a bit of investment in there for products and services that are not currently shipping or derivations of what is currently shipping,” chief executive officer Tim Cook told Bloomberg. “There’s a lot of stuff that we’re doing beyond the current products.”

The location of some of Apple’s newest offices also point to autonomous technology. In 2014, it opened an office in Cambridge, Mass., in order to have better access to the wealth of speech recognition experts in Boston as it seeks to improve Siri, and earlier this year Apple opened a research and development center in the Ottawa suburb Kanata, across the street from the QNX headquarters.

Apple, which prides itself on startling innovation, may be hoping that its autonomous vehicles will pay off in shock value, as the initial public fascination with electric cars wears off somewhat. But there are already a lot of high profile players in the race toward autonomous car technology, from Google, to Microsoft, to Volvo, and Apple could easily get lost in the shuffle as some 30 car manufacturers and tech giants compete.

There are still obvious safety concerns to be addressed before fully self-driving vehicles are common on the road, particularly since humans are less likely to accept machine malfunction than human error.

“We have to create perfection in the collision-avoidance systems before we have the car drive itself,” Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Wall Street Journal. “There are nuances to these technologies that we have not yet perfected.”

The release date for Apple’s car, whatever form it ends up taking, is slated for 2020, although people working for Project Titan have said there have been setbacks because of technical issues and a lack of direction, making project completion in 2021 a more feasible target.

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