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Automobiles

The Apple Car cometh (probably)

So Apple's working on a car. What do we know, and what do we not know about Project Titan? And, most importantly, what does it all mean?

Are Google's self-driving cars a sign of what's to come from Apple? Google

For most of 2015 we've heard talk of an Apple automotive project of some sort, with rumors ranging from an advanced, high-tech interior system all the way up to a bona fide Apple Car. Early chatter was dismissed by many (myself included) as optimistic flights of fancy but, with each successive revelation by unnamed sources, the murky signals from the tea leaves have become more and more clear.

Now, six months on from the first major flood of rumors about Apple's supposed "Project Titan," it seems like a good time to take stock of where we're at, and where Apple might be going from here. Note that the vast majority of these rumors are unconfirmed, so do grab that salt shaker before reading on.

Who

The Mercedes-Benz Research & Development Center, North America Tim Stevens/CNET

Apple's Titan team is said to number around 600 individuals. That is quite sizable by most standards, but if recent reports are to be believed, it is set to triple in the very near future. This, of course, will put quite a strain on the Silicon Valley automotive engineer hiring pool. Thankfully, it's an increasingly rich one.

Ford, General Motors, BMW, Nissan, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz all have facilities within a short drive from Apple's Cupertino headquarters. And, Tesla Motors' manufacturing plant is just 30 minutes up Highway 880. Tesla has been the most publicized hiring source for Apple, with founder and CEO Elon Musk saying Apple is offering $250,000 signing bonuses to woo its employees. However, it's Mercedes-Benz that provided the highest-profile new hire: Johann Jungwirth.

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Johann Jungwirth

Jungwirth previously was the boss at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, a fancy new building in Sunnyvale full of engineers researching things like how to make your car figure out where you want to go without you telling it.

The leader of the overall Titan effort, however, is said to be Apple's Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who joined Apple back in 1999. He played a huge role in launching the original iPod and, at least until recently, oversaw iPhone design as well.

The high-profile hires will surely continue, but with any luck Apple will avoid the sort of legal antics seen when Michican-based battery developer A123 Systems fired back after watching a number of key employees pack up and move to Cupertino.

What

Original rumors and reports pegged the Apple Car as an autonomous thing, not unlike Google's self-driving machines. And, reports of Apple meeting with the California DMV about securing an autonomous registration for a vehicle certainly point to eventual autonomous capabilities for the vehicle.

However, the most recent report indicates that Apple may get out the door with a more traditional, human-piloted machine. That would likely make sense if reports of timing are true...

When

The Ford GT took just 14 months to design. Ford

That same recent report pegged 2019 as the target date for a supposed Apple Car. That's four years away and, assuming Apple's been up to this for about a year now, would fall nicely in-line with the typical five-year vehicle production cycle.

That's the cycle we customarily see when a manufacturer is releasing a new version of an existing car, at least. For example the new Porsche 911 , which was recently unveiled in Frankfurt, has been in development for roughly five years. In the grand scheme of things, the 911 is a relatively minor update -- new engines, new suspension tunings and, yes, the addition of Apple's CarPlay.

However, sometimes things happen more quickly. The Ford GT's design cycle, from ideation to Detroit debut, took just 14 months. Granted, it will be another two years after that before the car is available to the public, but if Apple plans to unveil the car in 2019 -- not necessarily sell it -- it is feasible.

That said, 2019 is highly optimistic for a fully autonomous machine to hit the American streets. This would point to an Apple Car that needs a driver -- but perhaps not 100 percent of the time. After all, Volvo will start selling partially autonomous cars in 2017.

Why

Zipcar has changed the notion of car ownership for many. Zipcar

Even if all the rumors and bits of intel handed out by unnamed strangers prove true, there's an awful, awful lot left that we don't know. Primary among them is intent. What exactly does Apple hope to gain here? The answer isn't as simple as it seems.

The seemingly obvious angle is that Apple wants to build a car and then sell you that car. However, the auto industry is evolving in such a way that even a basic notion such as that must be questioned. Our concept of personal transportation is changing dramatically, a polar shift that will only swing more dramatically once autonomy becomes a genuine thing.

Zipcar and Uber and their ilk have already reduced the necessity of car ownership in many urban areas. Soon services like this will not only provide access to cars, but will have these cars deliver themselves to your front door when you need them. When this happens, when vehicle access truly trumps vehicle ownership, it'll turn the industry on its head.

All the major manufacturers know this, which is why most are experimenting with ways to address it. BMW has been trying to make its Car2Go service work, for example, while Ford has a number of similar initiatives wrapped up in its Smart Mobility program. This is the future, and so if Apple's model is to simply sell cars, the company may find itself outmoded before its first dealership opens -- assuming, of course, that it actually opens dealerships.

If, however, we're talking about some sort of a new-age, on-demand car-leasing program, the question then becomes: What volume of cars can a new manufacturer realistically hope to shift? If everyone's sharing cars, how many cars does everyone need?

Where and with whom

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Could BMW be a partner for Apple? Chen Bill

This is, perhaps, the biggest question. Apple sells an awful, awful lot of smartphones without having the means to build any of them. In fact, it was Tim Cook (as Senior Vice President and later Chief Operating Officer) that largely pushed Apple out of the manufacturing business in the first place. It seems awfully unlikely that, in a few years time, we'll see Apple building a car factory.

So, Apple needs partners -- just like Google. Google went with Roush Industries, a Detroit-based vehicle fabricator, to build its machines. That works fine for a small fleet of test vehicles, but if Apple's going to manufacture the tens of thousands of cars it'll take to turn a profit, it'll need a bigger partner. A much bigger partner.

According to more rumors, Apple executives met with BMW and even toured some of the company's manufacturing facilities in Germany. This could be a natural fit. BMW has long been a leader in iPod and iPhone integration (though it is currently lagging on CarPlay), and of course its cars are of a very high level of quality. BMW even has an EV on the market, the i3 , which could serve as a solid template for an eventual Apple Car.

But would Apple really be happy simply building atop a competitor's platform? You'd certainly never expect an iPhone to share a chassis with a Nokia phone, even though Foxconn has in the past manufactured products for both.

What's next

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Richard Scarry

While Google is out there sharing its next steps, and missteps -- with the world -- Apple enjoys a fair bit more secrecy in its goings on. We'll never know how many products have been birthed, gestated, iterated, honed and ultimately killed before ever seeing the light of day in Cupertino.

However, with over 1,000 employees working on the supposed Project Titan, a need for third-party manufacturing (and shipping) on a massive scale, and of course all the legislative hoops that must be negotiated, it seems unlikely that Apple could really bring its typical "one more thing" surprise approach to the automobile world.

Ultimately, that doesn't really matter. What's more important, and I think what a lot of people are excited about, is the potential for a new perspective on personal transportation much like the iPod, iPhone and iPad all shook up their respective product categories. Apple fast-followed into those markets and did just fine. How long will it take to get into the fast lane this time?

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