It shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Apple's once ambitious self-driving car project is no longer ambitious. The New York Times reports that the company has relegated research for autonomous vehicles to a software system that will power a self-driving shuttle in between its new spaceship campus and its old offices. So much for reinventing the automobile experience.
This is not to say that self-driving shuttle is lame. It's a futuristic bus that drives itself! Apple even has a patent for a bendy bus with tank treads, which is a creative idea. But then you hear the name, and your reaction is inevitably, "Oh." The self-driving shuttle is called PAIL (Palo Alto to Infinite Loop). While the bus isn't yet running, it's hard to imagine Apple employees needing a lift and chirping, "Let's go hop in the PAIL!"
What's really disappointing about the Times report, however, are the details of the now abandoned automobile hardware efforts. We've known since last year that Apple was waffling on its self-driving car project -- codenamed Project Titan -- and shifting its focus away from building a car from the ground up toward building software that could power an autonomous car, a strategy that's also been adopted by Waymo, the new Alphabet company that picked up Google's old self-driving project. What we didn't know were many specifics about what Apple thought it could do if it did build a car.
Under the leadership of veteran Apple executive Bob Mansfield and with the vision of Apple's chief design officer Jony Ive, the iCar sounds like it was going to be awesome. (It wasn't really called the iCar, but it's funny to pretend that it was.) Just check out these new details from The Times:
From the beginning, the employees dedicated to Project Titan looked at a wide range of details. That included motorised doors that opened and closed silently. They also studied ways to redesign a car interior without a steering wheel or gas pedals, and they worked on adding virtual or augmented reality into interior displays.
We can only assume that this might have looked something like the Mercedes F015 concept, a work of art pulled straight from Minority Report. That self-driving car design features cabin wrapped in touchscreens with captain's chairs up front that swivel around to create a little mobile living room. Just take out that steering wheel and those pedals, turn the chrome into matte black, and it could almost be an Apple product.
Image: Mercedes Benz
But wait there's more. From The Times:
Apple even looked into reinventing the wheel. A team within Titan investigated the possibility of using spherical wheels -- round like a globe -- instead of the traditional, round ones, because spherical wheels could allow the car better lateral movement.
Apple thought about making its car roll around on big balls? That's just crazy. It's certainly ambitious! But it's crazy.
Apparently, after some infighting over building a fully autonomous car versus a semi-autonomous car, Apple pruned its plans back to a new so-called carOS. This is evidently what will be powering the shuttle, and Apple presumably hopes the software will also find its way into cars designed and built by automotive companies like, well, Mercedes.
You can't feel too surprised, but it's OK if you feel disappointed. An Apple-made mobile augmented reality chamber would have been really cool, and maybe we'll get something close in a decade or two. For now, most of us are still stuck with our petrol-guzzling death machines.