Apple resets its autonomous vehicle priorities
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Photo Credit Thomas Trutschel/Photo Credit: Name / Getty Images Israel)

After two years of speculation and secrecy, unflattering details are coming out about Apple’s driverless car unit, Titan

Bloomberg has reported that Apple is scaling back its driverless car initiative, named “Titan”, to pursue a self-driving system for 2017 rather than a complete vehicle. Initial Titan layoffs at Apple were disclosed by The New York Times in September, and now even more engineers are said to have been reassigned or let go.

With the Titan project being restructured, Apple will continue pursuing its telematics “smart car” applications for developing smart cars. These smart cars will not be driverless, but the research and development that goes into integrating operating systems (OS) with the vehicle will have future uses for self-driving models.

Major automotive manufacturers, like Ford, have pursued their own projects to reduce dependence on outside entities. Some have struck deals with Apple and Google as well as other tech companies like Nokia. Most, though, are determined to see it through their own way lest they become mere “commodity-makers” for tech firms who already have an edge over them in making electric cars, since, “When it comes to electric vehicles, tech firms build almost all the parts aside from the auto body and tires,” reported The Korea Herald last year.

Outside of the US, German and Japanese auto manufacturers have also begun acquiring their own proprietary technologies to design systems which would not be reliant on American technology majors. Joint initiatives have also been launched, such as international GPS integration projects involving tech companies from both the EU and Japan. Just last month, VW announced a joint venture with the Israeli Cymotive, headed up by former internal security chief Yuval Diskin, to provide cyber security for their connected vehicles.

Automakers address tech elephant in the room

Such concerns, notes the Handelsblatt business daily, are, “why traditional carmakers worry most about losing control over data, becoming just another hardware supplier while California upstarts cream an increasing share of value off the top.” Especially concerned were auto parts’ suppliers worldwide, who feared that Apple would be willing to weather the financial shortfalls and drawn-out development process to produce their own in-house systems, without seeking partnerships or supply chain deals with them.

In the next few years, though, it is now likely Apple will go to these firms to get, “flexibility to either partner with existing carmakers, or return to designing its own vehicle in the future” per Bloomberg’s coverage. In fact, neglect of supply chains was a major stumbling block for Titan. Apple’s traditional pricing approaches in consumer electronics do not necessarily lend themselves to heavy industry applications such as car manufacturing.

In contrast, Tesla Motors was wary, and even mocking of, Titan at times, while Google was generally unconcerned, given its own advanced lead in the field.

Smart cars for human drivers already here

Apple unveiled its telematics suite, CarPlay, in 2014. CarPlay allows drivers to use Siri, Maps, iTunes, and third-party services to provide directions, monitor vehicle performance, control music, and run phone calls or web searches. Google, BlackBerry, LG, and Samsung are some of Apple’s main competitors in the market.

These entities now face even greater competition from China, though, where e-commerce giant Alibaba has partnered with SAIC Motor to unveil an automotive OS that offers built-in navigation, order and pay options, camera control, and personalized entertainment packages, as Geektime reported on in July.

The level of telematics integration is high, and the project leaders confidently told Reuters that the next step for them is driverless technology. The Chinese electronics giants Pegatron and Foxconn, both major contractors for Apple, now also have their own telematics projects in mind. Such initiatives are aimed at breaking into a market that Juniper Research estimates will be worth $40 billion in 2019, double its present value.

The autonomous vehicle market also has the potential to be worth tens of billions of dollars less than a decade from now, but has much further to go and it is unclear where Apple will be in 2017, the year analysts project that at least semi-autonomous vehicles will become available in any numbers, overcoming legal hurdles as well as technological ones.

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