Tim Cook finally acknowledged one of the most poorly kept secrets in the tech industry: Apple is working to develop self-driving car technology.
Cook’s comments clarified that Apple is working on something in the autonomous space — but that’s it. He gave no more details about the project than what we could infer from the evidence that has been mounting since late last year through document leaks about the “Apple Autonomous System,” regulatory filings, and a reported sighting of a Lexus SUV toting self-driving sensors driving near the company’s offices in California.
Self-driving car development is one of the hottest trends in both the automotive and tech industries. The biggest companies in the world are busy launching projects, announcing partnerships, and spending massive amounts of money to develop the first viable autonomous platform. Apple was one of the last major names without any public skin in the game, so its official entry, no matter how ambiguous, is a big deal.
Now that Cook gave the autonomous program his stamp of approval for speculation, here are three takeaways about Apple’s position in the self-driving development scene and its potential for the future.
Apple vs. Google hits the streets
At first glance, its seems like Apple’s roadmap to self-driving development appears to be strikingly similar to that of one of its chief rivals: Google.
Google’s project, which has evolved into the standalone company Waymo, began with designs to create a self-driving vehicle from the ground up before pivoting to focus on developing a software and hardware package which could be marketed to automakers instead. If Apple has actually scrapped its ambitions to build a car, it could be moving in the same direction.
This could create an entirely new arena for the rivalry between the two giants, with a major advantage to Google. Waymo is one of the strongest players in the game, both through its track record driving millions of test miles and its alliances with partners like Lyft and Chrysler. Apple, as far as we know, isn’t even close with its autonomous system.
Mike Ramsey, a research director at Gartner, thinks Apple’s ultimate path to the self-driving future won’t come through a platform like Waymo’s. Ramsey guesses the Google vs. Apple rivalry will take to the streets — but not in a direct autonomous platform-to-platform battle.
“At its heart Apple is fundamentally a design company and a user interface company,” he said on a phone call. “In 10 to 15 years, the control of the vehicle will be a commodity, not a special system. Does Apple want to focus on that?”
Instead, Ramsey thinks that Apple’s automotive project will end up back where it started: making a car. “On a fundamental level, Apple’s design-oriented model lends itself more to building an Apple Car, rather than the AI around it,” he said.
In this scenario, the rivalry between Apple and Google would play out much like it has in the smartphone industry: Apple would design and build its own self-driving car to meticulously control the user experience, while Google would serve as the most common self-driving system on the market for everyone else’s vehicles. It’s just like iPhone vs. Android — just add four wheels and a motor.
Apple’s cult of secrecy might hurt it with consumers
One of the main differences between Apple and every other self-driving car project is what we know about it: almost nothing.
Tim Cook was characteristically cagey with his acknowledgment of Apple’s self-driving efforts; he made a point to emphasize that there is a distinction between what the company is “focusing on publicly” and what it’s working on internally, implying that there’s more to Apple’s automotive designs than the little he was ready to talk about.
He’s just sticking to the typical Cupertino game plan: keep projects as secret and private as possible, right up ’til launch. It’s a strategy that has long served Apple well, as the tech-loving public salivates over what might be coming to the next generation of high-powered gadgets — just think about the massive hype train leading up to the iPhone 8.
That secrecy works for computers and gadgets, but in the self-driving car space, where lives could be on the line and the end goal is to redefine mobility, keeping development news close to the chest might not play as well.
That’s not just to look better than competitors — it could be a matter of trust. While autonomous tech presents an appealing paradigm shift for many future-forward people, countless others aren’t so ready to trust a machine behind the wheel.
A study conducted last year that delved into the ethics of self-driving cars and autonomous systems at large found that most respondents didn’t trust the cars enough to ride in one. That’s why there are efforts to humanize AI — and why it’s such a big story every time one of the semi-autonomous systems currently on roads, like Tesla and Uber, gets in an accident.
Autonomous systems could be viable within the next few years — but if common people don’t understand them and trust them, which can only come through familiarity, they won’t be adopted on the massive scale needed to shift the mobility paradigm. If Apple isn’t willing to share its progress, it won’t be able to earn consumer trust.
Apple can’t do this solo — yet
One of the biggest trends in self-driving development has been the flurry of partnerships that have sprung up between tech companies, mobility startups (think Uber and Lyft), and traditional automakers. Just one problem: Apple doesn’t really play well with others.
While the company uses partners in its supply chain and manufacturing, product development is typically an internal affair. Apple has reportedly hired some top automotive talent and made a billion dollar investment in Didi Chuxing, one of China’s biggest ride-sharing companies, but it’s still well behind other similar players in the space.
Apple’s more suited for a late start than most of its competitors because of its prestige and wealth, but there’s one essential factor for self-driving car development where, as far as we know, it’s severely lacking: data.
Training the AI that controls the autonomous systems takes massive amounts of situational data compiled by test driving on roads IRL; that’s why Apple likely has a car on California streets now. But competitors, namely Google, are literally millions of test miles ahead, putting Apple at a major disadvantage.
In order to make some waves in the market and gain access to some of that road data, Apple will have to switch up its strategy and make some friends for development — or at least it could take the path of least resistance, reach into its nearly bottomless coffers, and buy some.
That’s the path Ramsey sees the company taking. He pointed out that there are a ton of self-driving startups currently developing their own systems — so why should Apple spend time and money to work on its own? The company is sitting on $250 billion, so it has plenty of cash to snap up a proven self-driving system once the market evolves and begins to consolidate.
Or maybe there’s already an Apple-backed startup hard at work already: Ramsey said that there’s a rumor floating around the analyst circles that secretive self-driving startup Zoox could be an Apple front. At the very least, he said that it could be a prime candidate for an Apple acquisition.
Apple might have entered the self-driving race late, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily set up to lose. If the company decides to continue on its own path rather than following the crowd, it could be in a prime position for automotive success — it just won’t be the first company to cross the finish line.