Autocar understands that behind a heavy veil of secrecy, the Apple iCar has now progressed to what insiders describe as committed project status. Here we outline the electric car every established automotive manufacturer secretly fears.
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The story behind the Apple iCar
Behind the pre-fabricated aluminium façade of a large building at the rear of an industrial estate in Sunnyvale, California, USA, work is progressing on what could possibly be the most significant car to emerge since Karl Benz’s ground breaking Benz Patent-Motorwagen first introduced the world to the motorised carriage 130 years ago.
The nondescript factory unit, located at 960 Kifer Road, houses an electric car workshop run by Apple – the US-based electronics giant whose iconic products have revolutionised the way we work, use our free time and converse with one another on a day-to-day basis. Known simply to Apple employees as SG6, the otherwise unremarkable building has been the subject of intense speculation since Sunnyvale city council documents revealed a secretive shell company formed by Apple had leased the site in November 2015.
The electric car development being carried out at the heavily shielded workshop in the middle of Silicon Valley is treated with the same all-encompassing confidentiality as work being focused on other future Apple products. Precious little about its operations are known outside the tight-knit circle of engineers, software specialists and construction experts posted there.
Anyone who enters the five-acre complex is asked to sign a confidentiality agreement that legally binds them to remain tight lipped on anything they have seen, heard or experienced at the site. Not that many outsiders are invited to visit the facility, which is remarkably plain looking for a company with such an enviable reputation for design excellence as Apple.
The only hint that activities being run by Apple in Sunnyvale are of an automotive nature is a fleet of Dodge Caravan prototypes that regularly frequent its forecourt, and which have also been sighted at the GoMentum Station, a former naval base in San Francisco with over 20 miles of paved streets guarded by the military that’s often used by car makers for testing purposes. According to automotive industry experts, the modified MPVs, leased by Apple, are being used to test autonomous driving technology, which is thought to be under consideration for the so-called iCar – the name given to what’s being billed as Apple’s next big thing.
Need to know basis
As it stands, no one outside the company knows for sure if Apple, whose market capital is presently ten times that of BMW at a staggering $581 billion as of May 2016, intends to enter the automotive industry with its own electric car or, as has recently been suggested, is simply developing technology to integrate into the future models of traditional car makers. However, with more than 1000 employees from backgrounds as diverse as body-in-white engineering and autonomous software coding, already claimed to be involved of the so-called iCar, many, including the world’s financial community, are clearly betting on the former.
When asked about the long-rumoured electric car last year Apple president, Tim Cook, has only added to its mystery, saying, “I don’t have anything to announce about our plans. But I think there’s some significant changes in the automobile industry over the next several years with electrification and autonomous driving. And there’s a need for a focus on user interface. So I think there’s a lot of changes that will go on there.”
In a more recent shareholder meeting, Cook was again pushed on the subject of the Apple car. His vague reply? “Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve it was so exciting you weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs. Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while”. This immediately led analysts to surmise that, contrary to earlier indications, development of the iCar was indeed well underway but still some way off.
Those who have held talks with the Apple president during the past 12 months, including executives from Audi, BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz are under no illusion of the company’s intentions. They are convinced Cook has already given the go-ahead to the partly autonomous iCar and expect it will be launched by 2021 as a precursor to a fully autonomous successor model to be introduced around 2026 as regulatory conditions are altered to allow features such as fully automated parking.
Apple’s goal? An initial 500,000 sales annually, according to those that have met with Cook. That might not sound like much for a company that manages to shift some 230 million smartphones each year. However, it is an acceptable target for a company new to the automotive scene and 10 times what another one of California’s electric car start-ups, Tesla, managed in 2015. As a further point of reference, combined sales of the BMW i3 and i8 totalled just 29,500 last year.
To ensure wide spread appeal for the Apple car, Cook is relying on the implementation of what automotive business leaders interviewed by Autocar describe as “disruptive technologies” – a term given to features that are expected to significantly change the face of motoring in much the same way the touchscreen altered our use of the mobile phone: highly efficient electric propulsion, rapid charging, autonomous driving capability, gesture control, holographic displays, wireless internet functions, artificial intelligence... the list goes on.
The iCar will get you from A to B, but it's set to be much more than mere transport for masses. Like the iPhone, it has been conceived to also be a personal assistant with a level of connectivity far beyond that of any existing car of today.
To achieve this, Apple has already allocated billions of dollars to development programs like the electric driveline program being carried out in Sunnyvale. At the same time, Apple has been active in purchasing technology and patents, either through takeovers or joint ventures similar to that which it recently announced with ride hailing start-up Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent of Uber. Autocar research also reveals the company is investing heavily in production process management in a move that’s expected to see the iCar introduce a new assembly process that will allow it to be built cheaply yet highly efficiently at a number of different sites.
Despite all the pervading secrecy that surrounds its activities, Apple’s entry into the automotive field is expected to take a similar path to that which has seen it come to dominate the personal electronics field with its iconic design-led products.
Famously founded in garage of former president Steve Jobs’ parents in 1976, Apple wasn’t the first to offer a digital music player in the iPod. Nor was it first to place a smartphone on the market with the iPhone. Neither did it invent the tablet computer with its iPad. It only entered these respective markets once it was convinced it had a product that significantly redefined them, possessed true customer appeal and, although expensive compared to rival products, proved attainable for most willing to sign up to contracts with outside partners.
Apple iCar battery
The expectation is, just like Apple’s popular products today, the iCar will feature a highly contemporary design, high-quality materials and an innovative interface providing a whole new level of connectivity through features such modified versions as its Siri speech recognition, Force Touch and multi-aperture digital camera technology.
Word out of South Korea also suggests Apple has inked an agreement that will allow it to independently develop its own hollow lithium ion battery cells using patented technology from energy storage specialist Orange Power. The hi-tech batteries, which are claimed to provide increased energy density due to unique cooling properties, could be used in combination with highly efficient new-generation electric motors already being tested by Apple at a separate research centre close to its Sunnyvale facility and its own proprietary power electronics in move providing the iCar with zero-emissions compatibility.
Beyond this, there is mounting evidence that Apple is also planning to integrate its own autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and crash prevention technology into the iCar as part of a broader plan that could allow it to form the centre piece of a car-hailing operation through Didi Chuxing.
The product is king
One of the factors driving Apple’s plans for its own car are predictions the growth of digitisation, increasing automation, the rise of connectivity solutions and new mobility sharing models will revolutionise the automotive industry within the next 15 years. A report tabled by McKinsey and Company earlier this year suggests the automotive industry will significantly diversify towards on-demand mobility solutions, creating up to $1.5 trillion in additional revenue in global car sales by 2030.
While Apple is yet to official confirm it plans to stretch beyond its current portfolio of products with its own uniquely branded car, one former Apple employee, who has asked to remain anonymous due to confidentiality agreements signed during a period of employment at the company, says the building blocks of such a project are already well-established. “They can say what they like, but they can’t deny the iCar, or whatever they like to call it, is not already under development. Such an enormous undertaking requires huge planning and it can’t be held secret forever,” he says.
Autocar’s source reveals product development is central to operations at Apple, suggesting there is traditional flexibility in the way management signs off on products. “At this stage of development there won’t be a strict timeline, as various departments and developers will be working on solutions to different tasks. As with the iWatch, Apple may well decide to delay the introduction of the iCar if it is not convinced goals are being met.”
What is known is for sure that Apple’s president Tim Cook has provided the iCar project with a working title: Project Titan. He has also set about assembling a team of experts from a range of different industries to complete the herculean task of conceiving, designing and developing a car from scratch. While the number of Apple employees working directly on the iCar is currently put at around 1000, this is expected to increase to over 1800 within the next year or so as development moves into top gear.
Backing up reports that the iCar had been upgraded to a “committed project” last September, fully integrating it into Apple’s vast product development operations, Cook has already set about making a number of key changes to Project Titan following an internal review that back in February led to the departure of Apple’s product design boss, Steve Zadesky, who had acted as the head of its secretive electric car operations.
Zadesky, a former Ford engineer, had worked on the iPod and iPhone, and was seen as a possible successor to Cook himself. He is succeeded by Apple veteran Bob Mansfield, who has the task of expanding the iCar’s focus more toward autonomous driving in a move that now sees it working both on the hardware and software solutions in-house.
No stranger to Apple, Mansfield joined the company in 1999 and was one of its leading executives under former founding president, Steve Jobs. After overseeing hardware engineering development of some of the most popular Apple products of the past decade, including the MacBook Air, iMac and iPad, he stepped back from Apple’s day-to-day operations in 2012. Instead of retiring from the scene completely, though, Mansfield was retained by Apple as an adviser to special projects, including the Apple Watch.
In his new role, Mansfield answers directly to Apple president Cook, unlike his predecessor, who reported to the company’s highly respected hardware boss, Dan Riccio, who in turn reported to Cook.
Apple icar Autonomous driving
This realignment of hierarchy within the Apple ranks is a attempt to streamline development of the iCar after a decision to not only equip it with the latest in electric driveline knowhow but also cutting edge autonomous driving technology by reducing the restraints of vertical management.The allure of working for Apple has attracted many highly regarded people to the Project Titan. Among the more prominent names contributing directly to the development of the iCar is the former development boss at Tesla and Aston Martin, Chris Porritt. Other high profile recruits from Tesla include former senior powertrain engineer, John Ireland; engineering manager, David Nelson; CNC programmer, David Masiukiewicz and driver assistance specialist, Hal Ockerse.
Such has been the brain drain at Tesla, that its founder, Elon Musk, was moved to comment on the iCar, saying it was “obvious” Apple was working on its own car. “It’s pretty hard to hide something if you hire over a thousand engineers to do it,” he said.
Beyond Tesla, Apple has also hired Megan McClain, a former Volkswagen engineer; Doug Betts, who was previously responsible for quality at Fiat Chrysler; Paul Furgale, an autonomous driving program specialist from the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich;, Kevin Harvey, previously of Andretti Motorsport; Sanjai Massy, an engineer who worked at Ford; Stefan Weber, a former Bosch engineer who specialises in driver assistance systems; Vinay Palakkode; a researcher from the Carnegie Mello University; and Lech Szumilas, an autonomous driving expert from Delphi and Xianqiao Tong, who rose to promience developing driver assistance system for chip maker NVIDIA.
Also high on Apple’s list of recruitments are battery specialists, including Mujeeb Ijaz, who previously headed up technical operations at A123 Systems. Joining him are a number of inductive charging specialists, including, Kurt Adelberger, who previously worked for Google and Nan Liu, and is a graduate from the University of Georgia Institute of Technology.
More recently, Apple hired Dan Dodge, who formerly ran BlackBerry’s automotive software division and developed the highly regarded QNX software platform used in a variety of in-car infotainment systems.
While there is a heavy engineering and software developer presence within the iCar ranks, it's the design and user interface that is arguably more important to its success. The man responsible for the styling of Apple’s first car, Jonathon Ive, has worked for the company since 1992 and led the design teams for a range of products including the iMac, iBook, MacBook Pro, Power Mac G4, iCube, iPod, iPhone, PowerMac G5 and iPad. A self-confessed car connoisseur, he uses a Bentley Mulsanne as everyday transport and is also the owner of a rare Aston Martin DB4 among other classics.
Ive heads a team that includes a number of designers with strong automotive credibility, including Marc Newson, the man behind the Ford 021C concept car. Also on board is Julian Hoenig, who has worked for Lamborghini and Audi, as well as Aaron von Minden, who was involved in the styling of the fabric covered BMW Gina concept car.
In preparation for its launch, Apple has been active in trademarking and registering possible names for its new car. The internet search agent Whois revealed it registered a number of internet domain names, including apple.car, apple.cars and apple.auto via the company MarkMonitor in January 2016. While the move could simply be to stop opportunists snapping up the names and then selling them on at inflated prices later, Apple has a history of registering domain names shortly before a new product appears.
Ground zero for the iCar right now is the workshop at 960 Kifer Road in Sunnyvale. In this Silicon Valley suburb, which is also home to a long established Mercedes-Benz research and development centre among hundreds of ambitious start-up companies, Apple is rumoured to be developing elements of its newest product under the cloak of a shell company called SixtyEight Research.
The leasing of the 8919m2 site, formerly used by Pepsi as a bottling plant, was first made public by Sunnyvale City Council in March 2016. Since then, no modifications have been made to the exterior of the complex, though neighbours report windows at the rear of the main building on the industrial estate have been blanked out to shield what goes on inside. There have also been reports of rolling test bed equipment being delivered to the site.
The location of Apple’s iCar development workshop in Sunnyvale is significant as it is just five miles from a former FedEx site at 335 Brokaw Road in Santa Clara that has also recently been leased by Apple. It is also a similar distance from Apple’s headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino.
The shell company behind the workshop, SixtyEight Research, is as mysterious as the iCar itself. Registered in California in 2015, its limited website presence suggests it is a marketing operation, although many believe this is merely a fictional reference to hide its true role in the development of the iCar.
Further adding to the intrigue, SixEight Research is named on documentation as being the importer of a 1957 Fiat Multipla 600 from the UK to the US in 2014 – a move that has led to rumours that the production iCar could take the form of an upright one-box MPV-style car similar in dimensions to the Volkswagen Budd-E revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show last January.
Shortly after the leasing of the industrial complex in Sunnyvale sent internet chat rooms into overdrive over the apparent acceleration of project Titan, further word began to spread within automotive industry circles about a heavily cloaked research and development laboratory established by Apple in Berlin, Germany.
Initial reports suggested the new Berlin site was being used as a testing base for electric motors being sourced from a German supplier, possibly Bosch or ZF. However, the official line from Cupertino sources is the laboratory is being run as part of a strategic operation for Apple Maps – the navigation app that appears set to play a crucial role in Cook’s plans to provide the iCar with autonomous operation.
The mapping laboratory, which employs around 25 people, was set up following the joint €2.8 billion purchase by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler of Nokia’s mapping division Here, which by no coincidence is also based in the German capital. Apple’s primary goal? To poach high ranking officials from Here as part of efforts to produce the world’s most accurate mapping app as part of the iCar’s arsenal of new-age technology.
As secretive as its heavily cloaked development operations are the production plans for the iCar. Looking to establish a business model similar to that of the iPhone and controversial Chinese electronic manufacturer Foxconn, Apple has attempted to court a number of established car makers in recent years with the view towards outsourcing assembly of its new car.
For a while it appeared Apple may have secured a highly prized partner in BMW. But after Apple boss Cook inspected production of the i3 at a factory in Leipzig, Germany in August 2015, BMW allegedly pulled back on the idea, its newly installed chairman, Harald Krueger, fearing the closeness to Apple may be playing into the arms of a potential future rival by revealing its own production secrets despite telling journalists at last year’s Frankfurt motor show that rumours suggesting the iCar could be based on the i3 as a “nice idea”.
A similar liaison with Mercedes-Benz has also been confirmed by insiders at parent company Daimler, who suggest Apple was interested in entering into a joint venture with the German car maker for the eventual production of the iCar. However, aggressive manoeuvring by Apple officials is claimed to have annoyed Mercedes-Benz boss, Dieter Zetsche, who lashed out at the electronics giant when asked about the company’s relationship with Apple, telling journalists, “We don’t wish to be contract manufacturers like Foxxconn”.
Further talks with Fiat Chrylser boss, Sergio Marchionne, were subsequently abandoned when it was revealed the Italo-American company had partnered with Google for the development of autonomous driving technology.
While it appears to have struck out with plans to attract an established car maker, one plausible line of thinking is that Apple is now looking to commission an automotive production specialist such as Magna to assembly of the iCar. Nothing is official, though it is interesting to note that BMW recently pulled production of the Mini Countryman out of Magna’s Austrian facilities, suggesting capacity has been freed for the production of a new car, possibly the iCar.
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