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MIT Technology Review

Apple’s Car Plans Are on the Ropes

A fast-approaching internal deadline could end the tech giant’s automotive ambitions.

October 17, 2016

Apple’s ambition to become involved with the auto industry is one of the worst-kept secrets in tech. But a new report suggests that its car team has been scaled right back and given a firm deadline by which to make the idea work.

Bloomberg reported earlier this year that it thought Apple was planning to pivot from developing an entire car to building just autonomous vehicle software. Now, though, it cites sources “familiar with the project” who claim that things have changed dramatically to enact that shift:

Hundreds of members of the car team, which comprises about 1,000 people, have been reassigned, let go, or have left of their own volition in recent months, the people said … New leadership of the initiative, known internally as Project Titan, has re-focused on developing an autonomous driving system that gives Apple flexibility to either partner with existing carmakers, or return to designing its own vehicle in the future.

The changes, though, also appear to come with a condition: executives at Apple have reportedly told the team that it has until “late next year to prove the feasibility of the self-driving system and decide on a final direction.” That suggests that the company has been struggling to figure out exactly how to make its auto ambitions work.

It’s not alone. While Google has made huge advances in developing its autonomous cars, its team recently lost several of its longest serving and most influential technical members—including engineering lead Chris Urmson. The New York Times said that his departure was a result of his being “unhappy with the direction of the car project” after ex-Hyundai CEO John Krafcik was brought in to help commercialize the project.

In fact, as competing projects take off, the autonomous car sector is looking ever harder for technology companies like Apple and Google to crack. Apple’s deadline may be what’s required to focus minds, or it may ultimately end up canning the project. Either way, it appears to be a vitalizing force that the team needs.

(Read more: Bloomberg, “Alphabet’s Self-Driving-Car Wizard Picked a Great Time to Quit,”  “Rebooting the Automobile,” “How Might Apple Manufacture a Car?”)