Apple’s Car Project Was Far More Bonkers than We Ever Knew →

For a decade, we’ve all wondered what an Apple-designed car would be like. Thanks to Mark Gurman and Drake Bennett, we now have an idea:

Around the beginning of 2020, Apple Inc.’s top executives gathered at a former Chrysler testing track in Wittmann, Arizona, to try out the latest incarnation of the car the technology giant had been trying for years to make. The prototype, a white minivan with rounded sides, an all-glass roof, sliding doors and whitewall tires, was designed to comfortably seat four people and inspired by the classic flower-power Volkswagen microbus. The design was referred to within Apple, not always affectionately, as the Bread Loaf. The plan was for the vehicle to hit the market some five years later with a giant TV screen, a powerful audio system and windows that adjusted their own tint. The cabin would have club seating like a private plane, and passengers would be able to turn some of the seats into recliners and footrests.

The Bread Loaf, so far, sounds very much like something Jony Ive would be into, at least in terms of looks… but then things get weird:

Most important, the Bread Loaf would have what’s known in the industry as Level 5 autonomy, driving entirely on its own using a revolutionary onboard computer, a new operating system and cloud software developed in-house. There would be no steering wheel and no pedals, just a video-game-style controller or iPhone app for driving at low speed as a backup. Alternately, if the car found itself in a situation that it was unable to navigate, passengers would phone in to an Apple command center and ask to be driven remotely.

I read that last part about four times before it truly sank in. Pushing self-driving technology forward was clearly important to Apple, but this sounds like the company was reaching for pure science fiction, with a 1-800 number as a safety net.

According to this reporting, Tim Cook and Jeff Williams rode in the Bread Loaf and liked where things were heading, but after Doug Field left Apple for Ford, things got weirder still:

Under Field’s successor, Kevin Lynch, who also runs Apple’s smartwatch software group, the car’s design continued to evolve. It had become pod-shaped, with curved glass sides that doubled as gull-wing doors, and the company considered including ramps that would automatically fold out to make heavy cargo easier to load. The front and the back were identical, and the only windows were on the sides, a design choice with potentially dire consequences in the event that a human needed to do any driving. (Front and rear windows were later added.) Some people on the project called it the I-Beam.

It’s clear Apple thought it could pull off self-driving at a level that no one on Earth has been able to do so. It’s also clear that there was a staggering lack of decisive decision making concerning how the technology should be turned into a product.

There’s inherent tension in product design. If people can’t imagine the future, they can’t build it. With the car project, Apple’s dreams seem to have been too big, and its vast resources let work carry on far too long.

True self-driving cars will be here one day, and maybe Apple’s work will make them possible sooner than otherwise possible. However, at the end the day, companies like Apple have to ship products. It seems that someone at Apple finally remembered that real artists ship.

Update: Don’t miss my follow-up post discussing this in more detail.