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Apple ends its decade-long secret effort to build an electric car

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Apple is shutting down its decadelong secret effort to build an electric car. The company has transformed many industries, but car-making will not be one of them. So what happened? NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn is here to tell us. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why was Apple trying to make a car in the first place?

ALLYN: Well, as one of the most advanced tech companies in the world, Apple thought it should give it a try since electric vehicles are, you know, basically a computer on four wheels. Apple was, here, trying to give Tesla a run for its money with this Apple-branded car.

And, you know, Ari, the whole thing started 10 years ago. Back then, Apple realized it had to do more than just make iPhones to keep growing and to keep growing its profits, and so it launched a secret project. It was called Project Titan. Thousands of Apple employees were devoted to it. They, you know, were trying to build an all-electric, self-driving car. Now, Apple never publicly acknowledged the existence of this plan, but the company has, for years, been testing its car technology on public roads. And through public patents it filed, some details came to light. But, you know, given Apple's obsession with product details - and, obviously, we know about Apple's die-hard fan base - you know, a car from Apple really had the potential to make a big splash - keyword here, potential.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So what happened exactly? Like, what went wrong?

ALLYN: Well, news reports, starting with Bloomberg, came out, saying Apple was moving the staff who were working on the car project to artificial intelligence teams and that the car project was being completely wound down. Some early explanation seems to be that self-driving technology was harder to crack than Apple had realized. There were a number of major mishaps with self-driving cars in San Francisco. That didn't help. And electric vehicle sales, you know, while they have been growing substantially in the past year, they've recently started to cool off a bit. And some analysts wondered if Apple was looking at this and just didn't think they'd ever be able to make money off a car. It was expected to cost around $100,000, so very out of reach for the majority of would-be buyers.

But officially, Apple has been mum, right? They won't confirm that the project was killed because, as I mentioned, they've never acknowledged its existence in the first place. I reached out to dozens of Apple employees who worked on the car project, but none of them got back to me. It's just really a reminder, Ari, of just how secretive this company is. Even by Silicon Valley standards, Apple is exceptionally guarded.

SHAPIRO: Well, what about the electric vehicle industry overall? Will Apple backing off its plans for an EV have any impact?

ALLYN: I think so, yeah. It's something of a boost for Tesla, which now doesn't have to worry about what could have been a pretty serious competitor. Elon Musk celebrated on X by sharing the news with a saluting emoji and a cigarette emoji. I guess that's his way of saying good riddance. But for the EV world, yes, one less competitor. But all eyes are on someone else - China, right? - which, you know, makes some of the world's cheapest EVs - as low as $12,000. None of those super-cheap, Chinese-made EVs are in the U.S. yet, but American EV makers are on edge that Chinese-made EVs will one day completely upend the market for electric vehicles here.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, is this really the end of Apple's car ambitions?

ALLYN: In terms of building a self-driving Apple EV? Yes. But Apple is still very much in the car world with software. Most new cars you buy nowadays come equipped with CarPlay, right? It's built in. It allows people to use their iPhones and stream things and call people from a dashboard display. It's, you know, really become a staple for millions of cars, and it makes Apple a lot of money. But an iCar - or whatever Apple planned to call it - yes, Ari, that now does sure seem to be dead.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOLA YOUNG SONG, "CONCEITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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