Apple scraps self-driving car project as Tesla announces new Autopilot

Elon Musk says the fact that Apple is working on an electric car is the “worst kept secret in the world.” That may be so, as Apple has aggressively poached top engineers from Tesla and other major auto manufacturers over the past two years. There have been rumors of Apple searching around Silicon Valley for 800,000 square-foot of new space to support a secretive testing facility north of San Francisco for its self driving technology.

But then suddenly this summer, project head Steven Zadesky left the company. Apple said it was for “personal reasons,” but that is often code for someone being pushed out, with or without a golden parachute. Apple then brought Bob Mansfield out of semi-retirement to head up Project Titan. Mansfield has headed many important programs during his time at Apple and was once a close confidant to Steve Jobs himself.

Now that Mansfield has had a month or so to look around and get a handle on Project Titan, rumors from inside Apple have shifted. We now hear reports that dozens of senior members of the team have been laid off as part of what is being described as a complete “reboot” of the program. Those rumors suggest that Apple has given up on the idea of actually building a car and will content itself with developing autonomous driving systems that it will market to automakers.

The automotive world is in a frenzy to bring autonomous cars to market. While the major players have the money, time, and manpower to develop their own systems, many of the lesser companies do not and may welcome assistance from someone like Apple. In addition, new start-up electric car companies are coming out of the woodwork every day. They can’t all have the skill and competence to create their own self-driving technology.

Eventually, autonomous driving systems may become just another component future cars will need, like brakes, motors, and batteries. Apple could be thinking of positioning itself as a leader in the field. MobilEye is another company targeting that market.

Of course, all of this is just rumor and speculation. Apple is more tight lipped than the NSA and the people who know what’s going on inside aren’t talking. The rumor mill suggests that whatever Apple is up to, it won’t have a marketable product until 2021 at the earliest.

With Tesla announcing this week that the company’s new Version 8 of Autopilot will allow radar to scan under a vehicle driving ahead and see what is in front of it, Apple had better have some special tricks up its sleeve. Given its current pace of development, in 5 years time, Tesla will have some truly astonishing technology available.

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