Apple’s Electric Car Was Doomed From the Start

The “Apple Car” was never going to happen. Here’s why.

The report was heard all across the world on Tuesday: Apple’s not-so-secretive “Project Titan” electric car has been canceled after a decade of starts and stops — not to mention thousands of employees recruited and several major project leadership changes throughout the years — that endlessly delayed the ambitious research and development efforts.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman had the scoop, reporting that Apple is “winding down” the electric car project and shifting many of the almost 2,000 employees who worked on it under the “Special Projects Group” to focus on generative AI developments.

To the average person who’s been soaking up every tidbit about the “Apple Car” over the past few years and waiting for the electric car to materialize, or the drooling fanatic who’s obsessed with Tesla and new EVs and couldn’t wait to see what a giant iPhone on wheels might look like, the cancelation might feel like a massive letdown. How dare Apple end a secret car project it never officially announced or acknowledged?!

I don’t share the same disappointment because I’ve been saying for many years that Apple would never create an electric car. Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams and VP of Technology Kevin Lynch, who was put in charge of the electric car project, didn’t just abandon the EV overnight. Apple’s electric car project was always doomed from the start.

Why Apple Started Work On a Car

Apple CEO Tim Cook and former Chief Design Officer Jony Ive.

picture alliance/picture alliance/Getty Images

Even with Steve Jobs’ passing in 2011, Apple went on an impressive product and innovation streak in the 2010s. The iPhone 4’s glass and stainless steel frame catapulted Apple into the luxury and premium world; the iPhone 4S introduced Siri; the iPhone 5 brought a fingerprint reader; the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus gave everyone the large iPhones we wanted.

Then came the Apple Watch in 2015, and annual iterations on it that quickly turned it into a must-have fitness and health monitoring device. And then AirPods took the world by storm starting in late 2016. By 2018, Apple was soaring so high it became the first public company to hit a $1 trillion valuation.

With the stock price soaring and the products flying off shelves, the pressure was on for Apple CEO Tim Cook and his lieutenants to deliver The Next Big Thing. Jobs revolutionized personal computing with the Macintosh in 1984, then returned in 1997 with the iMac and iBook after being ousted by then Apple CEO John Sculley who he had personally recruited. He transformed the music industry with the iPod and then did it again for the phone industry with the iPhone. What industry or product category would Apple, under Cook, disrupt and transform?

It was in the midst of Apple’s meteroric growth around 2015 that the company started hiring automotive experts to start work on its secret electric car project. Apple reportedly amassed thousands of people — everyone from new hires to veteran employees pulled in from other departments — to explore everything from EV batteries to self-driving technology.

What would would come after the iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods? What would Cook’s legacy be? Maybe an electric car! Tesla had just found success with the Model S in 2012 and then the Model 3 became a sensation in 2017.

Fully Self-Driving Or Not?

No matter how many reports came out or nuggets slipped into books, it was always plain to me that the Apple car project didn’t have any clear direction. What was Apple trying to build? An electric car that could compete head-on with Tesla? A fully electric self-driving car that might look nothing like the sedans and SUVs that fill our roads? The reports over the past decade painted a picture of constant struggle. Not only did Apple seem to not know what kind of car it wanted to build, but the technologies it maybe wanted to include simply weren’t developed enough or didn’t exist.

Here’s an excerpt from Tripp Mickle’s After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul that described a car concept that former Chief Design Officer Jony Ive had imagined:

One day in the fall of 2015, Ive met Tim Cook in Sunnyvale to show him how he envisioned the car working. He imagined that the vehicle would be voice controlled and passengers would climb in and tell Siri where they wanted to go. The two executives entered the prototype of a loungelike cabin interior and sank into seats. Outside, an actor performed as Siri and read from a script that had been written for the fanciful demonstration. As the imaginary car sped forward, Ive pretended to peer out its window. “Hey, Siri, what was that restaurant we just passed?” he asked. The actor outside responded. A few other exchanges with the executives followed. Afterward, Ive exited the car with a look of satisfaction upon his face as if the future was even grander than he’d imagined.

As the head of industrial design and the designer who helped establish several eras of tech aesthetic dominance (transparency, white, aluminum, gold, etc.), Ive had immense power. After all, Cook wasn’t a product guy like him or Jobs. So letting Ive do what he’s good at — imagining the future — seemed like a sound idea. The only problem with Ive’s Siri-powered car concept was that it didn’t consider the engineering. “He seemed oblivious to the engineers looking on, some of whom were gripped by a worried feeling that the project was as fictional as the demonstration, moving fast but nowhere near its final destination.”

As if that pie in the sky didn’t bring enough focus to the car project, The Information would later report that the Apple Car would have no steering wheel or brake pedal and had four seats that faced each other. Writing for Bloomberg, Gurman later said that Apple walked back on not including a steering wheel and instead of forging ahead with a fully autonomous driving vehicle all the time, the fully self-driving feature would only work on highways, functioning more like existing cruise control and driver-assistance modes. Every year, with every new leaadership change to the project, seemed to reboot it with no clear idea of what they were working towards.

CarPlay Dominates Existing Cars

Apple CarPlay in a Subaru BRZ.

MacFormat Magazine/Future/Getty Images

All the while, Apple has been updating and improving CarPlay since 2014. CarPlay, for the uninitiated, is Apple’s way of extending an iPhone’s functionality to a car’s infotainment screen. With CarPlay, you get access to maps, calls, messaging, music and podcasts, and more that can either be controlled with an infotainment’s touchscreen or physical controls or via Siri voice control.

Simply put: CarPlay is the interface that Apple would probably include directly into the infotainment screen of its own car. It’s a simpler and more intuitive interface that connects (wired or wirelessly) to most peoples’ most important device — their iPhone. Compared to an automaker’s own often complicated homegrown infotainment software, most people would prefer CarPlay (or Android Auto).

In fact, CarPlay is one of the top features that buyers of new cars consider when making a purchasing decision. With 98 percent of all new cars supporting CarPlay and the feature available in more than 800 car models sold in the U.S., it’s clear that drivers want it. According to Apple engineering manager Emily Schubert, 79 percent of car buyers in the U.S. would only buy a car if it has CarPlay. A 2020 Consumer Reports survey of over 73,000 of its own members found more people were satisfied with CarPlay (or Android Auto) compared to the built-in infotainment system’s software.

An electric car with CarPlay baked right into the console and other Apple-ecosystem features AirDrop and SharePlay and FaceTime would have been the ultimate vertically integrated Apple product ever made. And if you know Apple, it loves to control all of the hardware technologies inside of its products. Which brings me to my next point…

Manufacturing a Car Is Really Hard

Automated robotic arms work on the assembly line of electric vehicles.

VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images

In order for Apple to control the key technologies inside of its car, it’d need to design them and then find the right manufacturing partner(s) to produce and assemble them together. Have you ever watched videos of cars being assembled on factory lines by multi-million dollar robots (and increasingly fewer humans)? It’s a complex assembly process that costs lots of money and requires a type of precision that’s more advanced than chamfering the edge of an iPhone.

Production issues were among some of the big reasons why Tesla couldn’t create enough Model 3s and Elon Musk had to sleep at the factory in order to identify bottlenecks to help not only speed up production, but also improve the quality of the cars rolling off the line. It wasn’t an insurmountable task for Musk because Tesla owns its own factories. But even to this date, Tesla still can’t get the door panels on its cars to align perfectly. Apple, on the other hand, doesn’t own production sites; it outsources assembly to companies like Foxconn and Pegatron. For Apple to manufacture a car, it’d need to build its own factories or find some willing partner to help them.

There were plenty of murmurs that Apple was in talks with Hyundai and Kia to help with production, but if I’m being honest, that never made any sense to me. Yes, there would be money to be made teaming up with Apple, but why would any established automaker assist Apple in disrupting its own business and potentially take car sales away? An EV like Hyundai’s Ioniq 5 and 6 draws attention no matter where they’re spotted, but the Apple brand has an appeal that’s far stronger than any car brand. It would have been foolish for any company to help Apple eat its lunch.

Would Apple even want to take on the troubles of manufacturing or poor car assembly by another company? Cars — even Teslas — also get recalled all the time. Could you imagine recalls on Apple Cars? Those are headaches that Apple would be stupid to incur; any issues would be at a magnitude much larger than taking back an iPhone or MacBook at an Apple Store.

And then, there’s the whole question of how do you sell an Apple Car? At an Apple Store? Online like Tesla? The amount of logistics needed to sell a car and then service them after purchase never aligned with the company’s values. Not to mention, a car, even an EV, wouldn’t help towards its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.

Apple’s Biggest Vaporware

It’s kind of unfair to call the Apple Car vaporware because it was never officially announced. It’s not like the AirPower, which was prematurely announced, then eventually canceled after prototypes kept overheating and melting the pad’s surface. But let’s call it vaporware anyway because it’s been in the news for the past 10 years, and now it’s kaput.

Good! Truthfully, it’s about time that speculation about the Apple Car came to an end. Ten years of whispers about the on-and-off project is too long. It’s time for Apple to move on and put its focus on rebooting its existing products and doubling down on new ones like the Vision Pro. The iPad went all of 2023 without an update; the first time since its launch in 2010. Maybe now it can get more resources. Same for the iPhone, Apple Watch, AirPods, and Macs. And the software that is the lifeblood of them.

The Apple Car was a beautiful dream at a time when Apple needed a vision to strive towards and EVs were nascent and ripe for disruption. But the sad reality is that the Apple Car was never going to happen. The dots never connected. I hate to be that guy, but I told you so…

Related Tags