It’s hard to believe Apple’s self-driving car project is now in its eighth year. Despite the project’s many ups and downs, 2022 may prove to be the most crucial year.
The original iPhone was rumoured to have spent three years in development before being released to the public.
The first iPad, as well as the Apple Watch, were in development for about the same amount of time. Around 2016, work on Apple’s upcoming mixed-reality headset began. If everything goes according to plan, it will be released around the six-year mark, in 2022.
During their gestation periods, all of those new products had fairly consistent leadership. However, the Apple Car, as many industry observers have dubbed the company’s self-driving vehicle, has been a leadership shuffle.
Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer turned iPhone and iPod executive, spearheaded the project in 2014. It was later given to Dan Riccio, the former head of the hardware division, and his predecessor Bob Mansfield, who retired last year. Doug Field, a former Tesla executive, led the company from 2018 to September.
Following Field’s departure from the company, Kevin Lynch was given control of the project. Lynch, unlike the previous four leaders, has no experience in hardware leadership or in the automotive industry, though he is known to drive a Tesla. His expertise is limited to software. For millions of users, Lynch was able to turn the Apple Watch from a product with no clear purpose into an indispensable device for notifications and health monitoring.
The underlying self-driving software that will power the car, as well as, as with all things Apple, the operating system users will interact with to operate the vehicle, are both core to the Apple Car.
When Lynch took over, he instilled a new, singular vision for the project: a fully autonomous vehicle that avoids the use of a steering wheel and pedals in favour of a limousine-like experience. As I reported in November, he also pushed the development team, known as the Special Projects Group, to pick up the pace of work and aim for a 2025 launch date.
Lynch and Apple must now put their plans into action now that he has figured out what he wants from the project. Aside from perfecting the technology, the most difficult task will be retaining the talent required to make this car a reality. Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
While Field was the most visible departure from the Apple Car team this year in terms of name and title, he was just one of many. The wave of departures began in early 2021, with four of Apple’s top Apple Car executives reporting to Field: Dave Scott, Jaime Waydo, Dave Rosenthal, and Benjamin Lyon. Field then bolted for Ford in September. Michael Schwekutsch, who oversaw Apple’s hardware development.
It isn’t just top executives who have resigned. At least three key engineers responsible for battery technology, drive train systems, and self-driving sensors have recently left the company. Some former Apple employees have gone on to work for flying taxi startups. So, do these engineers think a flying car is more likely to be launched than a self-driving Apple vehicle for the streets?
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Apple’s performance in the coming year will be scrutinised. It needs to hire and retain the right people to make it all work, even if it has the vision. If it can’t figure it out after a year under its fifth Apple Car CEO, it may want to reconsider the project’s feasibility — or simply put its nearly $200 billion in cash to work and buy some new EV startups to get it going.