January 24, 2019, Lora Kolodny, Christina Farr, and Paul A. Eisenstein, writing for CNBC:

Apple dismissed just over 200 employees this week from Project Titan, its stealthy autonomous vehicle group, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

An Apple spokesperson acknowledged the layoffs and said the company still sees opportunity in the space:

"We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple," the spokesperson said.

"We continue to believe there is a huge opportunity with autonomous systems, that Apple has unique capabilities to contribute, and that this is the most ambitious machine learning project ever."

That we keep getting reports on the inner workings of a special projects group within Apple is surprising. That Apple commented on it is startling. We'll get to that in a hot minute but, first, what is Project Titan really? And why does it seem to be changing year after year?

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A Thousand Nos

People at Apple hated their phones, true enough, which is why we got the iPhone. But they loved their cameras, their watches, and yeah, their cars. Which is why we've got the iPhone camera, the Apple Watch, and why we may one day get the Apple Car. Or not.

Apple has hundreds of billions of dollars in the bank. As I've said numerous times before, they have the money to prototype anything and everything any blogger, YouTuber, or analyst can imagine, and more, and typically do, years before it occurs to any of us.

The only way you get to a thousand nos for every yes — A nod to the video Jony Ive's design group debuted years ago — is to prototype 999 things you're going to say no to. Including things that may end up being cars or car-adjacent.

Titan: Act One

Before he passed away in 2011, Steve Jobs reportedly told John Markoff of the New York Times that:

if he had more energy, he would have liked to take on Detroit with an Apple car.

In 2013, during the Samsung trial, Phil Schiller said:

that Apple had explored making "crazy stuff" before development of the iPhone and iPad, including a camera or a car.

Then, in 2015, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Ramsey, writing for the Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. AAPL 3.31% has revolutionized music and phones. Now it is aiming at a much bigger target: automobiles.

The Cupertino, Calif., company has several hundred employees working secretly toward creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle, according to people familiar with the matter. The project, code-named "Titan," initially is working on the design of a vehicle that resembles a minivan, one of the people said.

Mr. Cook approved the car project almost a year ago and assigned veteran product design Vice President Steve Zadesky to lead the group, the people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Zadesky is a former Ford engineer who helped lead the Apple teams that created the iPod and iPhone.

Mr. Zadesky was given permission to create a 1,000-person team and poach employees from different parts of the company, one of the people familiar with the matter said. Working from a private location a few miles from Apple's corporate headquarters in Cupertino, the team is researching different types of robotics, metals and materials consistent with automobile manufacturing, the people said.

Asked about it a couple of months later at the Recode conference, Apple's head of operations, Jeff Williams, said:

"The car is the ultimate mobile device," and "We're exploring a lot of different markets."

The original Project Titan began under Senior Vice President of hardware engineering, Dan Riccio and vice-president Steve Zadesky. Post-Steve Jobs, Apple has had other members of the executive team Shepard the bigger projects, much like Jeff Williams continues to do with Apple Watch.

Where Purple, the original iPhone project, heavily leveraged existing iPod and Mac talent, and Gizmo, the original Apple Watch project, iPhone talent with a strong injection of horology and fashion, Titan is something further afield. Both technologically and logistically.

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.

Similarly, rather than a car, Apple would be making a computer for the road. But, just like the desk computer needed a keyboard and a chassis, the pocket computer needed multitouch and accelerometers, and the wrist computer needed a Digital Crown and heart rate monitor, the road computer would need ways to interact with both humans and the world around it. But at a complexity level unlike anything Apple had ever attempted before.

Ram slots, antennas, and swappable bands are one thing. Drive trains and traction controls, steering and breaking systems, never mind LIDAR and all the sensors you'd need to enable a computer to move on its own through time and space.

For the software team, Apple couldn't afford to let Titan run rampant through the existing ranks the way Purple did at the time — they still had iPhones and iPads and everything else to ship — but it attracted its fair share of both internal talent, and people who had left the company but felt compelled to come back by the idea of once again engineering the future.

Also, and critically, where Purple was locked down inside Apple, Titan was locked down in another city entirely. Close by, sure, but outside The Loop.

That led to something interesting. Where Purple was a product very much of Apple and Apple's culture at the time, from the Mach kernel to Objective C to the radar bug tracking system, being outside of Apple HQ, did Titan really have to?

It had been a long time since NeXT had taken over Apple and replaced the original Mac OS with OS X. Something that would set the company up for its next 20 years. But what about after that? There was no next NeXT to buy, and would the Apple of the present, unlike the Apple of the past, really need to look outside for something like that anyway?

What if, instead, Titan could also be used to figure out the future. One beyond Radar, beyond Objective C, even beyond Mach?

On campus, using mostly Apple engineers, even though iPhone and Watch are distinct products, they've always been distinctly Apple products. Off campus, using Apple engineers and new blood, what kind of product could Titan really turn out to be? On campus, using existing technologies, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS are effectively all branches of the same tree. Off campus, could TitanOS become an entirely new tree?

We'll probably never know. At least not in any way that resembles those heady, early days.

Titan: Act Two

Steve Zadesky left Titan in early 2016, citing personal reasons. In July of 2016, Daisuke Wakabayashi, writing for the Wall Street Journal reported:

Apple Inc. AAPL 3.31% has tapped a highly regarded senior executive who helped bring to market many of Apple's signature products to oversee its fledgling automobile project, according to people familiar with the matter.

With Mansfield on board, who had previously been senior Vice President of hardware at Apple before Riccio, there was no reason for the project to stay in Riccio's org. And, in order to set a tighter focus and a stricter timeline for deliverables, Titan shifted away from pre-mature hardware work and grandeur software dreams, and began to focus on the core technologies needed to prove autonomy would work at scale.

For example, ingesting the world around it, understanding it, and learning how to interact with it.

Apple's already shipping computational photography, computational audio, and ARKit systems that need to leverage those kinds of technologies to understand how to process images, model acoustics, and identify environments. Computational driving is just a lot, lot more complicated.

July 28, 2016: Mark Gurman and Alex Webb, writing for Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. has hired the former head of BlackBerry Ltd.'s automotive software division as new leadership at the iPhone-maker's car team places increased emphasis on developing self-driving technology, according to people familiar with the project.

Dan Dodge, the founder and former chief executive officer of QNX, the operating system developer that BlackBerry acquired in 2010, joined Apple earlier this year, the people said. He is part of a team headed by Bob Mansfield, who, since taking over leadership of the cars initiative -- dubbed Project Titan -- has heralded a shift in strategy, according to a person familiar with the plan. 

QNX is a UNIX-like, microkernel-based real time operating system, often embedded, and used for anything and everything that requires incredibly high levels of reliability, like nuclear power plants, submarines, and, you guessed it, cars. .

June 13, 2017, Alex Webb and Emily Chang, writing for Bloomberg: (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-13/cook-says-apple-is-focusing-on-making-an-autonomous-car-system)

"We're focusing on autonomous systems," Cook said in a June 5 interview on Bloomberg Television that amounted to his most detailed comments yet on Apple's automotive plans. "It's a core technology that we view as very important." He likened the effort to "the mother of all AI projects," saying it's "probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on."

"We'll see where it takes us," Cook said. "We're not really saying from a product point of view what we will do."

August 9, 2018, John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

Doug Field — who left Tesla in May after overseeing Model 3 production — has returned to Apple, working in Bob Mansfield's project Titan group. Apple spokesperson Tom Neumayr confirmed with me only that Field has returned to Apple, but no one should find it surprising that he's working on Titan.

Field previously worked at Apple as a VP of Mac hardware engineering before leaving for Tesla in 2013. So he spent years working closely (and successfully) with Mansfield on Mac hardware, and spent the last few years as senior VP of engineering at the world's premier electric carmaker. That makes Field a seemingly perfect fit for Titan.

Since it's unclear what supply-chain sources Kuo could tap so early, and since the first law of Apple Products says Nothing Unannounced Exists, we'll have to believe it when they keynote it.

Titan: Act Three

January 24, 2019, Lora Kolodny, Christina Farr, and Paul A. Eisenstein, writing for CNBC:

Apple dismissed just over 200 employees this week from Project Titan, its stealthy autonomous vehicle group, people familiar with the matter told CNBC.

An Apple spokesperson acknowledged the layoffs and said the company still sees opportunity in the space:

"We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple," the spokesperson said.

"We continue to believe there is a huge opportunity with autonomous systems, that Apple has unique capabilities to contribute, and that this is the most ambitious machine learning project ever."

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

CNBC's use of the term layoff is misleading, if not outright wrong. My understanding is that everyone leaving the autonomous group is still employed by Apple — they have a few months to find new roles within the company. I'm not trying to sugarcoat anything here, but that is not a layoff.

Some perspective here. Project Titan is big — there are still a lot of people working on it. Doug Field's message to the troops is that he thinks smaller teams do better work. This is not an indication that company is losing conviction on autonomous systems; it's Field structuring the project the way he wants it. Apple's statement is — as usual — true: the company is full steam ahead on this autonomous stuff.

For every yes

There were rumors for years that Apple was working on a phone but Purple, the iPhone project, never really leaked. There were rumors for years that Apple was working on a watch but Gizmo, the Apple Watch project, never really leaked.

At least nothing even close to Titan, which many people have assumed is the Apple Car project but is kind of something much bigger, exactly what Apple and Tim Cook have called it: an autonomous technologies project.

AR, augmented reality, was and is another special project within Apple that Tim Cook talked about even before its first manifestation, ARKit, shipped. People have similarly talked about its culmination as the Apple Glasses but it's also kind of something much bigger, and also exactly what Apple and Tim Cook have talked about: augmented reality in a far more general sense of the word.

It's like talking about capacitive multitouch as a product rather than as a key technology incorporated into many projects, like the iPhone and Apple Watch screens, the force touch trackpad on the Mac, the switch on the side of the Apple Pencil.

But because Titan leaked and continues to leak in a way that Purple and Gizmo never did, we've all had a chance to see how these projects work within Apple, in near time, in a way that, with Purple and Gizmo, we never did.

Can you imagine if we'd heard about P1, the iPod phone, and P2, what became the iPhone, in real time, and people moving off and on the various teams? Or if we'd heard about everything that happened between Apple TV 3 and Apple TV 4, when the box changed shape and purpose over and over again before finally settling on what it probably always should have been? Or the televisions sets and cameras and other products that ultimately never made it to product.

Beyond just the very public permits Apple has to get, we're now living in the age after iPhone, where everyone from Wall Street to Main Street wants to know what's next, there are millions of outlets and channels, and people just aren't as secretive as they used to be, including Apple itself.

Driven

Maybe Apple will end up making their own Tesla-style car like they do iPhones, or partner their software with a BMW-style hardware maker like they already do with CarPlay, or offer fleets of autonomous cars as a service to continue to grow revenue beyond physical goods, like the iPhone Upgrade Program.

Maybe we'll eventually see autonomous technologies from Apple in many ways and forms, across a wide range of products and services, including the machines that make the next generation of machines.

What, too meta? Or too The Matrix?