Has Apple rebooted its self-driving car program to develop autonomous vans?

2018 volkswagen california t6 transporter 15
Chris Chin/Digital Trends

The on-again, off-again iCar is one of the most mysterious projects Apple is believed to be working on. And now, though nothing is official yet, a recent report claims we need to stop referring to the vehicle as the iCar and call it the iVan instead. The model is well on its way to production, according to a German magazine, and it will arrive as a battery-powered van rather than as a sleek sedan or city-friendly hatchback.

Germany’s Manager Magazin learned from insiders working on the project that Apple has started building prototypes of its upcoming vehicle. The publication calls the model a kleinbus, a German term which literally translate to “small bus” in English. In Germany, it refers to a passenger-carrying commercial van like the Volkswagen Transporter (pictured above), the Mercedes-Benz Metris, or the Ford Transit.

Power for the model will come from an electric powertrain, and it’s being developed with autonomous driving in mind. Apple is designing all of the components packed into the van — including the battery pack, plus special seats and interior parts — in-house, Manager Magazin added. This seemingly contradicts a 2018 report which claimed Apple and Volkswagen had formed a partnership to build self-driving vans based on the aforementioned Transporter.

For Apple, making a van instead of a passenger car makes perfect sense for several reasons. First, it gives engineers plenty of space to integrate the hardware needed for autonomous driving and the components of an electric powertrain (including a bulky battery). Second, a van doesn’t come with the same handling and performance expectations as a sedan. It merely needs to reach freeway speeds in a timely manner, and not tip over when it goes around a corner. Apple would need to invest more money into chassis tuning if it developed a sedan, because buyers expect even an electric car with semi-autonomous capabilities like the Tesla Model S to handle relatively well.

The autonomous aspect raises an interesting question: Will private motorists be able to buy the iVan from an Apple store, or will the company deploy its people-hauler as part of either a car-sharing program or a shuttle service like Waymo’s? Both are possible, but the latter option sounds more likely.

Apple hasn’t commented on the report, which is hardly surprising. The company has remained silent about its alleged intentions to enter the automotive space, so everything we know about Project Titan comes from rumors, leaks, and insider information that finds its way online through various channels. What’s certain (and official) is that Apple is developing technology to power self-driving cars. The company shed insight into its program in a letter sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in February 2019. We’ll need to be patient — or hope for more leaks — to find out whether Apple’s plans to become an automaker are back on track.

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