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Apple, Volkswagen to make self-driving vans?

by Ronan Glon
Apple, Volkswagen to make self-driving vans?

We're far away from the often-hyped Apple car.

The often-hyped, long-rumored Apple car will be a Euro-bred Volkswagen van, according to a recent report.

Apple shelved its grandiose plans to build an autonomous car from scratch and started looking for a partner with a turn-key product and manufacturing expertise. Volkswagen has allegedly agreed to supply Apple with its Transporter van (pictured) for the self-driving shuttle conversion. Neither company has commented on the report.

What happens next is up in the air. Sources familiar with the plans told the New York Times the project is running far behind schedule. They also added the project "lacks a clear plan beyond the vans, including any near-term commercial coals." For now, it sounds like the autonomous vans will merely ferry passengers between Apple's two campuses in Silicon Valley.

The Transporter, a descendant of the original Volkswagen Bus and the more recent Eurovan, is a common sight around Europe, where it's used both as a work van and as a people-carrier. It's not sold in the United States, though.

Apple will work with Volkswagen-owned Italdesign to make several changes to the van, including installing a redesigned dashboard and Apple-specific seats. The conversion also involve ditching the internal combustion engine and replacing it with an electric drivetrain. The swap will be easier said than done because the Transporter wasn't designed with a large battery pack in mind.

Apple and Italdesign originally planned to deliver the first van by the end of 2018. The New York Times learned they won't meet that deadline, which suggests we might not see the final product until 2019. Look for an official announcement in the coming months.

How did we get here?

The insiders shed valuable insight into what's happened at Apple since it launched project Titan. It originally aimed to create the automotive equivalent of the iPhone, a disruptive product that would revolutionize transportation all around the world. It envisioned an electric, autonomous Apple-branded car and even built several design mock-ups, according to the New York Times. Officials wanted to manufacture the model in an all-new Apple factory located somewhere in the south of the United States.

It all looked promising on paper, but Apple quickly found out building a car is exponentially harder than building a phone -- even with billions in cash. It began seeking a partner to manufacture the car, and later asked for components like the chassis and the wheels. No one answered the call, for better or worse. That's when it took the markedly simpler route of retrofitting existing cars with its technology.

Volkswagen wasn't Apple's first choice. Officials held talks with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, McLaren, and Chinese auto-maker BYD but it never found common ground. Each time, Apple proved reticent to give its automotive partner control over data and design.