How Apple is shifting its approach to self-driving cars

A slew of recent layoffs may signal a change of direction for Project Titan, Apple's secret autonomous car project.

Matthias Schrader/AP
In this Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, file photo, people wait in front of an Apple store in Munich, before the worldwide launch of the iPhone 6s. Apple may not become a car-maker, but it still wants to develop its own self-driving technology. The iPhone-maker’s automotive project, long an open secret in Silicon Valley, is shifting to focus on creating the technology for an autonomous vehicle that doesn’t require a human driver.

Apple laid off dozens of employees in yet another reboot of its ever fluctuating self-driving car initiative Project Titan, according to the New York Times, which spoke with three people briefed on the changes.

The layoffs suggest continued trouble with the secretive car project as well as a new direction for the team, focusing more on software behind autonomous technology than the hardware. This new direction follows months of hiring sprees, layoffs, and uncertainties about what the iCar would bring to the autonomous car market.

"Electric cars rely not on the internal combustion engine, but on technologies more prevalent in the consumer electronics world: batteries, sensors and software. In addition, self-driving cars could change the traditional notions of public transportation and car ownership," The New York Times reported, explaining why Apple has shifted from electronic to self-driving and from hardware to software. 

This is not the first time in recent months that Apple has shifted gears with Project Titan.

In July, long time Apple employee Bob Mansfield essentially came out of retirement to replace former Project Titan director Steven Zadesky. Later in the month, the team hired Dan Dodge who founded QNX, which in turn developed the navigation system used by Volkswagen and Ford. The new hires were widely believed to suggest that Apple, which had previously focused on electric car development, was jumping on the autonomous technology bandwagon.

Characteristically, Apple has been incredibly secret about the project from the start, relying on shock value as a marketing tool. The closest CEO Tim Cook has ever come to admitting that Project Titan exists is this widely-circulated quote from a board meeting: “Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve, it was so exciting, you weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs? Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.”

Christmas may be on the horizon, however. 

While a reboot would imply a setback, the New York Times reports that Apple has is already testing multiple autonomous vehicles in closed environments. Some saw this coming from reports that Apple was looking into renting space at GoMentum, a test site for autonomous vehicles in California last year.

However, like most companies working on autonomous cars – Google, Tesla, Ford, General Motors, Audi, Delphi, Uber – Apple admits that self driving cars are still several years away from commercial markets, most likely in 2021 after the original release date in 2020 was pushed back due to delays.

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