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Tim Cook turns to a Ford insider for help in developing an Apple car amid chronic setbacks

May 4, 2022, 12:44 PM UTC

In its latest bid to finally launch an Apple car in the coming years, the world’s most valuable company didn’t turn to a software prodigy or artificial intelligence expert from the tech world. 

Instead, CEO Tim Cook sought help from someone steeped in the traditions of Detroit’s unionized auto industry, written off by Wall Street in recent years as an obsolete, value-destroying dinosaur ripe for disruption by fast movers in Silicon Valley.

According to a report in Bloomberg that Apple declined to confirm, the California-based company recruited former Ford executive Desi Ujkashevic to help it bring to market a self-driving vehicle as soon as 2025.

What her role at Apple’s on-again, off-again car project will be precisely was not specified.

At the time of her departure a month ago, Ujkashevic posted on LinkedIn that she was “excited to start my next adventure” after finishing as director of Ford’s global automotive safety engineering office.

There she was responsible for all current and future program safety strategies, including autonomous vehicles. 

“I hope to continue to contribute to society and advancing technology with a purpose,” she wrote on the social media site, adding her aspiration would be “ultimately making a better world.” 

Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

While it would be a stretch to say Ujkashevic is a household name among carmakers, an industry source who has known her for years characterized her as a manager with impeccable soft skills likely chosen for her expertise in the labyrinthine field of safety and compliance laws.

“You cannot underestimate the enormous amount of work that goes into making a vehicle compliant with various regulatory regimes around the world. It’s an inescapable part of the industry—you just cannot get around it,” the person said.

“So you need someone from the automotive business to be able to do that for you, and I would suspect that’s why they hired her.”

Project Titan never confirmed

Apple has been pondering how to break into the auto industry for nearly a decade. The earliest indication was a reference in 2012 made by then independent board member and J. Crew CEO Mickey Drexler that the company’s legendary founder, Steve Jobs, wanted to take on Detroit’s Big Three.

“Steve’s dream before he died [in 2011] was to design an iCar,” he said in an interview at the time

Rumors that Cook, Jobs’ anointed successor, was actually following up on that idea started to trickle out two years later, as more and more reports emerged of Project Titan, the code name for the team developing the Apple car.

Ever since it’s been the worst kept secret in the industry.

Apple’s interest in the field is likely due to the possibilities that self-driving vehicles offer in terms of new revenue streams.

Once drivers turn into passengers, the car becomes a kind of living room where interactive dashboard displays can be used for advertising goods and services much like any smartphone or tablet. 

The company’s efforts however have been marked by repeated setbacks. An ever-changing roster of project managers came and went, seemingly with little progress.

Internal conflicts furthermore dogged the team as disagreements reportedly ensued as to whether Apple should develop an entire car or simply focus on its intelligence and user interface.

This would be a beefier, much more expansive version of its CarPlay feature, which seamlessly connects an Apple smartphone to a car’s infotainment system. 

Various partners in the industry have also been purported to be in talks to assist Apple, including BMW, Nissan, and Hyundai, only to reportedly break negotiations over strategic differences.

Carmakers have been weary over the years about playing second fiddle to tech companies, and often reports suggested Apple demanded to pocket the lion’s share of the profit. 

All of these have however been unsubstantiated rumors as Apple has never so much as confessed Project Titan even officially exists.

Adept at finding solutions

Part of the reason why Apple has struggled over all these years is that building cars at scale profitably is one of the toughest challenges out there.

Despite the interest of new entrants like Sony to gain a foothold in the industry, only Tesla has so far proved it can survive the transition from niche brand to an established, even dominant, player. 

Moreover, while the rationale is obvious given the size of the global vehicle market, building and selling cars is nowhere near as lucrative as Apple’s existing business selling phones, tablets, and laptops. 

If you just take Apple’s core hardware business responsible for 80% of its revenue, it earned a gross margin of 36.4% in its latest quarter. Not even premium car brands can reliably make that kind of money.

Mercedes-Benz earned 24% at its passenger car operations in the first quarter, and even Tesla’s highly efficient automotive operations barely topped 30%. 

That’s a key reason why incumbent car manufacturers are valued at a very steep discount to tech companies: Ford for example is worth one-fiftieth of Apple’s $2.6 trillion market cap.

Should Apple only now be starting to make substantive progress with Project Titan, Ujkashevic will have her work cut out for her.

Typically a car takes a minimum of three years between the time it’s designed on a blank sheet of paper to its start of production.

Extensive market research is conducted to properly position the vehicle; it needs to be engineered and validated; purpose-built parts must be sourced from suppliers; and a strategy for manufacturing, logistics, distribution, and service developed.

Fortunately Ujkashevic is well versed in all of these challenges, and is adept at finding solutions. She joined Ford in 1991, rising through the ranks at a time when it was still fairly uncommon for women to seek employment in the largely male-dominated industry.

“She’s one of those rare people that can navigate herself through some really choppy waters politically speaking and do so with a smile on her face,” the industry source added. “I honestly cannot speak highly enough about her, she’s absolutely lovely.”

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