Report: Apple Scales Back Self-Driving Car Plans »

Daisuke Wakabayashi at The New York Times is reporting that Apple is dialing back its self-driving car dreams, after hiring scores of employees under the banner of “the next big thing:”

These days, Apple’s automotive ambitions are more modest. The company has put off any notion of an Apple-branded autonomous vehicle and is instead working on the underlying technology that allows a car to drive itself. Timothy D. Cook, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview with Bloomberg in June that Apple is “focusing on autonomous systems.”

A notable symbol of that retrenchment is a self-driving shuttle service that ferries employees from one Apple building to another. The shuttle, which has never been reported before, will likely be a commercial vehicle from an automaker and Apple will use it to test the autonomous driving technology that it develops.

This system — dubbed PAIL for Palo Alto to Infinite Loop — would still give Apple a platform on which to develop self-driving tech, albeit with far lower stakes.1

Compare this to some of the things this story claims the Project Titan team had been working on:

  • Silent, motorized doors
  • Interiors devoid of driving controls like pedals and steering wheels
  • An improved, less-bulky Lidar system
  • The possibility of using spherical wheels for better lateral movement

Wakabayashi goes on to detail some of the trouble at the center of the now-shrinking project:

There was disagreement about whether Apple should develop a fully autonomous vehicle or a semiautonomous car that could drive itself for stretches but allow the driver to retake control.

Steve Zadesky, an Apple executive who was initially in charge of Titan, wanted to pursue the semiautonomous option. But people within the industrial design team including Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, believed that a fully driverless car would allow the company to reimagine the automobile experience, according to the five people [familiar with the matter].

I’m of two minds when it comes to reading this. If technology companies do end up making the transition to being transportation companies, Apple may now be behind the likes of Google and what’s left of Uber. Would the company face serious trouble in the future if they can’t make the jump like its peers, or is this new focus on “technology systems” enough to keep it in the game?

However, I think it’s clear that Project Titan was a distraction to the company. There’s not much in the way of hard evidence of that, but as this has wound down, Apple’s actual products have seemed to receive more attention. If this is indeed the case, I’m glad to see a return to form when it comes to updating things like Mac hardware.

Either way, it sure is interesting to read about what’s going on behind those closed doors. Every big company has big projects that don’t end up living up to the original idea; Apple’s are just usually more secretive.

  1. Assuming, of course, PAIL proves to be safe for employees to use every day.