Apple Inc. will take at least half a decade to launch an autonomous electric vehicle, as development work is still at an early stage, according to people familiar with the efforts.
The Cupertino, Calif.-Based tech giant has a small team of hardware engineers developing drive systems, vehicle interiors and external body designs with the goal of eventually shipping a vehicle. This is a more ambitious goal than in previous years, when the project mainly focused on creating an underlying autonomous driving system. The company also added other former executives from Tesla Inc. to the project.
Still, some Apple engineers on the project believe the company could launch a product in five to seven years if Apple continues with its plans. The car is far from being in production, people said, although they have warned that the timeline could change. They asked not to be identified to discuss sensitive internal work. The majority of the team are currently working from home or the office for a limited time, which slows down the company’s ability to develop a complete vehicle. An Apple spokesperson declined to comment.
An Apple car would rival Tesla’s electric vehicles and offerings from companies like Lucid Motors and established manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz from Daimler AG and Chevrolet from General Motors Co. A key differentiator would be Apple’s ability to integrate its autonomous driving system, an expensive initiative that prompted the company to develop its own software, sensor hardware and chip technologies. The goal is to allow a user to enter their destination and be taken there with little or no commitment, depending on those familiar with the project.
Apple doesn’t make its own products and will likely take the same approach with a vehicle. However, it is not clear which company would assemble the car. In its first attempt about five years ago, Apple worked with engineers from Magna International Inc., a leading contract manufacturer in the automotive industry. Reuters recently announced that Apple intends to start producing a car as early as 2024.
Apple has continued to investigate building its autonomous car system for a third-party automotive partner rather than its own vehicle, people said, and it may again abandon its own efforts in favor of this approach.
The company began building an electric car in 2014, hiring hundreds of hardware engineers for the effort before rapidly scaling it down around 2016 to focus on the autonomous car system. From 2016 to 2019, Apple removed hundreds of workers from the team. However, he kept some hardware engineers with expertise in automotive components who stayed on the car project or worked on other initiatives.
In a sign that it has now restarted vehicle development, Apple has in recent months transferred an executive known for his work on vehicle interiors and exteriors to its automotive team. In 2019, Apple hired former Tesla engineering vice president Steve MacManus, but first worked on projects unrelated to the car. Now MacManus is leading a development group with several employees focused on car interiors, fabrics, car testing and vehicle manufacturing, people familiar with the matter said. He reports to Doug Field, a former Tesla vehicle engineer who runs the day-to-day Apple car project.
Apple also recently hired Jonathan Sive, an automotive engineer from BMW AG, Tesla and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, as the senior director of the automotive project. In 2019, Apple brought in Michael Schwekutsch, the former Tesla vice president in charge of drive systems, adding to a growing list of former Tesla employees working on the vehicle’s effort.
At the end of 2020, Apple also hired another former Tesla vice president, Stuart Bowers, according to a person familiar with the movement. He led Tesla’s autonomous driving technology team until mid-2019 and was a Executive in residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners until July, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Apple’s automotive team is filled with dozens of other old Tesla hardware and self-driving automotive engineers. In total, Apple has several hundred engineers working on the project, most of them developing the self-driving car system rather than the full-fledged vehicle.
At the end of last year, Apple transferred the project under John Giannandrea, head of artificial intelligence, suggesting that most of the development work remains on the underlying stand-alone software.
Read more: Apple transfers leadership of autonomous car unit to chief AI
The smaller hardware team works on vehicle dynamics, powertrains, safety mechanics, and battery technology. He also tries to reimagine the interior of a car for a future in which people drive passively rather than lead.
In recent months, Apple has posted job postings indicating that the work of this vehicle is ramping up. The company is looking for a senior engineer to integrate “audio drivers, tuners, speakers, microphones, wired buses, power supplies, wireless communication and antennas” into stand-alone systems.
Another job posting asks an experienced LED lighting engineer to deliver “a fully validated system ready for volume production”, suggesting that the company’s self-employed are being designed for mass production. . The company also published lists of engineers to work on “high voltage” battery systems, a key component of electric cars.
Apple’s chip unit, headed by Johny Srouji, is also playing a role in the car’s development, people said. Since 2018, Srouji’s team has been developing a custom Arm-based chip with a strong focus on machine learning processing to power the underlying autonomous car system.
The company has been testing autonomous technology on public roads since 2017. In 2019, the company’s test vehicles averaged about 118 miles before a human safety driver had to take control. This represented a 1 mile increase per disengagement in 2018, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The company has 66 cars in its fleet, according to the California DMV. This represents 55 vehicles authorized in mid-2018.