Focusing on the 'car' finger misses the 'autonomous' glory

Project Titan is like a finger pointing the way to the future. Concentrate on the finger, and you miss all the technological glory.

My mangling of Bruce Lee's classic line from Enter the Dragon aside, reading mainstream media coverage of "Project Titan" (Apple's automotive project) always makes me imagine what it would have been like had "Project Purple" (Apple's multitouch device project) received similar... attention.

  • "Sources: Apple working on secret Purple Project in locked-down building that smells of Pizza."
  • "People briefed on the matter: Apple's Purple Project aims to take on Tablet PC, playing catch-up to Microsoft!"
  • "Those not-authotrized to speak for the company: Apple scales back Tablet ambitions in favor of ROKR II"

The latest is from The New York Times:

As new employees were brought into Apple's secret effort to create a self-driving car a few years ago, managers told them that they were working on the company's next big thing: A product that would take on Detroit and disrupt the automobile industry.

Everyone wants to work on the next iPhone — a product that's new and exciting and will dent yet more universes. Titan has that feel to it, the way Purple did. It attracts the best and the brightest, including those at Apple, formerly at Apple, and at other companies. People who might not have been interested in working on anything else, especially anything already established.

A notable symbol of that retrenchment is a self-driving shuttle service that ferries employees from one Apple building to another. The shuttle, which has never been reported before, will likely be a commercial vehicle from an automaker and Apple will use it to test the autonomous driving technology that it develops.

The idea of an autonomous shuttle has been bandied about for years. It's one of the those things that, once you start thinking about autonomous transportation and how it can make the biggest impact, has an obvious place on anyone's list.

Five people familiar with Apple's car project, code-named "Titan," discussed with The New York Times the missteps that led the tech giant to move — at least for now — from creating a self-driving Apple car to creating technology for a car that someone else builds. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about Apple's plans.

There are probably a lot of people who were disappointed in the changes of direction inside Titan. Just as there were people who were disappointed in some of the directions taken with Project Purple in the years before and immediately after the launch of iPhone.

That's the cost of exploration. It's the way you end up with iPhone and whatever Titan will eventually become.

From the beginning, the employees dedicated to Project Titan looked at a wide range of details. That included motorized doors that opened and closed silently. They also studied ways to redesign a car interior without a steering wheel or gas pedals, and they worked on adding virtual or augmented reality into interior displays.

Apple even looked into reinventing the wheel. A team within Titan investigated the possibility of using spherical wheels — round like a globe — instead of the traditional, round ones, because spherical wheels could allow the car better lateral movement.

This is still something I hope to see. Not reinvented wheels, per se, but the equivalent of what Apple Watch did for the changing of bands and sizing of links — disrupt the industry with new ideas and innovations that substantially increase usability. Things the establishment should have done but somehow failed to even consider over the course of decades.

John Gruber has an interesting comment on the software side. From Daring Fireball:

Think about the way that ARKit is focused on identifying flat surfaces like floors and table tops. Seems like exactly the sort of thing that might have first been focused on identifying, say, roads. There's no car yet, and there may never be, but I would bet there's good stuff coming out of Project Titan already.

Some of ARKit was based on the work done by Metio, which Apple acquired in 2015.

There's no question, though, that many of the technologies required for autonomous driving are useful across a wide range of applications. For example, ingesting imaging data and understanding the world around it touches on computer vision, scene recognition, and all the machine learning buzz words in the business.

Eighteen months ago I wrote about how Project Titan could help frame the future of Apple:

What would a project run by Apple but just outside of Apple, with a mix of internal and external talent, and the willingness to test old assumptions and try new ideas mean for the company? And not just for the atoms, but for the bits?

Apple never made a typewriter, they made a computer for your desk. Never a phone, but a computer for your pocket. Never a watch, but a computer for your wrist. Each took and used a familiar form to make them understandable and approachable, but each also pushed the state of the art of Apple forward.

Likewise, not a car, but a computer for your roads. It'll use a familiar form to make it understandable and approachable, but it will similarly push the state of the art of Apple forward. Perhaps far more than a phone or watch, by virtue of how they were developed, ever could.

Beyond an Apple Car—and I'm excited for one to ship—the processes and technologies that come from projects like Titan will also ripple throughout Apple and redefine the company for the next decade, and perhaps in ways more profound than any before.

And that's the true value of all that R&D spend.

Before the change in direction, I fantasized that Titan could be Apple's next NeXT — a new foundation upon which their future could and would be built. But I was stuck thinking in terms of operating systems, bug trackers, and simple replacements for the components that already are. All of that will still be needed, just like NeXT was needed, and Apple has to make sure it has them in the pipeline for when they are. But they aren't all that will be needed.

That's why, now, my fantasy has evolved. Titan, along with many other projects at Apple, are busily creating new components for what will be. And ARKIt, CoreML, Vision, and other frameworks are the foundations upon which that future will be built.

I think that's why Tim Cook — who always seems to choose his words with remarkable care and accuracy — said Apple's plans were for autonomous technology in general. Like multitouch and augmented reality, it's a technology that will eventually touch everything.