The on-again/off-again Apple Car program has just been dealt another blow — even as the tech giant is reportedly talking to Toyota about a partnership that could finally bring the project to production.
Ford Motor Co. confirmed Tuesday that it has hired Doug Field, a product engineering executive who previously worked at both Tesla and Apple. He was also thought to be one of the key managers on the long-rumored Apple Car program. It’s unclear how much of a setback that could be at a time when Apple insiders are hinting at putting a car into the market by mid-decade.
“Doug is one of the world’s most respected engineering and product design leaders and has been a driving force behind breakthrough products across auto, tech and mobility, including at Apple, Tesla and Segway,” Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement.
Returning to his roots
It’s actually not his first time in Detroit, Field having begun his engineering career at Ford before moving out to Silicon Valley. There he served in a number of different fields, working on Mac hardware before taking a key job as part of Tesla’s Model 3 development effort.
Field returned to Apple and was, according to insiders, a key part of the Apple Car program. That effort, operating under the codename Project Titan, has undergone a number of changes during the past decade.
While the company has only provided sketchy details, it reportedly backed away from early plans to build a vehicle on its own, several years ago releasing or transferring a large portion of the project’s development team.
A mobile device on wheels
Since then, Apple has been focusing on design and technology development, according to Katy Huberty, a senior analyst at Morgan Stanley. “The car is essentially the next mobile device, and this is a category that Apple has focused on for years,” Huberty said in a report published by the financial services firm.
Much as Apple does with its iPhones, Huberty said, it is looking for a partner that would handle manufacturing of what is expected to be an all-electric and autonomous vehicle. But that search has proven quite difficult.
Earlier this year, officials with the Hyundai Motor Group confirmed the company was in discussions with Apple that could have led it to become the manufacturer of the Apple Car. That project collapsed for unknown reasons.
Are Apple and Toyota talking?
Now, it is being reported, Apple is talking to Toyota, though spokesman Scott Vazin told TheDetroitBureau.com, “We do not comment on speculation.” Apple did not reply to a request for comment.
In years past, such an alliance would have seemed unlikely, Toyota averse to working with outside companies. The company has reversed course since CEO Akio Toyoda came onboard, Toyota forming a number of partnerships and alliances.
On Tuesday morning, the Japanese automaker outlined its ongoing electrification program which allies it up with several battery manufacturers, including Yuasa and Panasonic. Meanwhile, Toyota teamed up with BMW to develop its Supra sports car, and with Subaru to develop the smaller GR 86 sports car.
Adding to the latest surge of news coverage, Apple reportedly has reached out to several South Korean battery suppliers, including LG Electronics and the SK Group, according to MacRumors.
Strategy goes beyond selling cars
According to some sources, Apple wants to have its new vehicle in production by 2024, while others speak of a window five to seven years out from now.
As with the iPhone, Apple is expected to set up its own distribution network and to view the vehicle as more than just another car.
“I think the focus right now, I’m sure, is on design and the vehicle itself, but with well thought out plans around what services could emerge longer term,” said Morgan Stanley’s Huberty.
That’s becoming a new strategy across the car industry, automakers looking at ways to not only sell vehicles but to develop an ongoing stream of revenue opportunities such as providing in-vehicle entertainment, updated infotainment, safety and performance software and subscriptions to autonomous vehicle functionality.