Apple has cut staffing levels on its low profile ‘Project Titan’ autonomous vehicles project by 20%. That adds up to 200 positions, though reports suggest many have been redeployed elsewhere within the iPhone maker. The reports are considered to be reliable despite not having been officially confirmed by Apple, whose driverless car ambitions have been kept largely under wraps. That is in contrast to competitors such as Tesla and Alphabet’s Waymo who have been much more public about targets and developments.
The scaling down of the numbers of people working on Project Titan are thought to reflect a growing realisation among the tech companies and traditional automobile manufacturers in the driverless car technology race that near term hopes of the technology making it onto the roads are fading.
There have still been some notable developments. The most significant of these is arguably Waymo launching its Waymo One driverless taxi service (the vehicles still also come with a human ‘safety driver’) in a limited patch of downtown Phoenix, Arizona in December. However, with the technology still not fully developed and the even trickier looking bottleneck legislation that will transfer legal responsibility from passenger to car some way from catching up with driverless systems, there is growing acceptance the new industry won’t be commercially viable for another several years.
With this in mind, companies pursuing a leading role in the new driverless cars industry, tipped to be worth $556.67 billion globally by Allied Market Research, have recently been forced into restructuring for a longer haul than hoped for as recently as a year ago. The recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held in Las Vegas in early January demonstrated this. The previous year had been all about demonstrating ‘Level 3’ autonomous vehicle systems that mean the car largely drives itself with the human driver only taking over in an emergency or in tricky conditions such as particularly bad weather. However, this year the focus was on ‘Pave’, a new industry group designed to ‘educate policy makers’.
Developers, with some exceptions such as BMW and Tesla who plan to launch Level 3 vehicles in 2021, now seem to accept that it may prove wise to skip over Level 3 and wait for fully autonomous Level 4. The holdup is now less about the technology and more about regulatory frameworks catching up. Early adopters that run with Level 3 are playing a possibly dangerous game that delicately balances the advantages of getting out of the blocks early with the risks that entails.
Project Titan is still considered important to Apple despite the cuts. Along with wearables, healthcare and digital service, driverless vehicle systems have been an R&D priority. The company’s R&D budget has more than doubled since 2014, to $14.2 billion last year, as Apple searches for a new hit product or products to take up the slack from falling iPhone sales. In contrast to its traditional ‘holistic’ approach of building hardware and software together for ultimate compatibility, is believed that Apple’s ambitions lie in a driverless vehicles OS rather than building the whole vehicle.