BY ROB STUMPF
AUTOMATION IS PIVOTAL TO AN APPLE-BRANDED CAR EVER HAPPENING, LET ALONE SUCCEEDING.
It’s been a few weeks since we talked about the never-ending rumor regarding Apple and its supposedly upcoming autonomous car. Until recently, hearsay on the matter suggested that the tech giant may have considered partnering with Hyundai or Kia to build the vehicle, and despite its earlier position on the matter, Hyundai later reneged saying that it wasn’t in talks with Apple, period.
So what are the newest haps with Apple’s reported automotive endeavor? To touch on that, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently sat down with Kara Swisher on the New York Times‘ Sway podcast where he briefly discussed his opinions on the core fundamentals of vehicle autonomy and Apple’s future in the car industry.
It became crystal clear that if Apple was to develop a vehicle, the focus would be on autonomy and driver assistance functions rather than building yet another car for consumers to buy. After all, pivoting from an electronics manufacturer to an automaker is a big leap—why take that on unless there’s a software offering that makes the vehicle more attractive than a tried and true option already on the road?
“We love to integrate hardware, software, and services, and find the intersection points of those because we think that’s where the magic occurs,” Cook explained in the interview. “And so that’s what we love to do. And we love to own the primary technology that’s around that.”
Cook continued, “The autonomy itself is a core technology, in my view. If you sort of step back, the car, in a lot of ways, is a robot. An autonomous car is a robot. And so there’s lots of things you can do with autonomy. And we’ll see what Apple does.”
Behind the curtain, it sure feels like Apple’s position is all-or-nothing, with vehicle automation at the center of its project. This could explain why the company looks to make use of the Lexus RX450h as a test mule for its project—it sees the vehicle as hardware and the underlying software architecture as its secret sauce. It also spurs a series of uncertainty around potential vehicle release timeframes; Tesla hasn’t been able to make Level 5 autonomy work, and it’s been in the ADAS sector since 2014. It does appear that Apple is attempting to incorporate LiDAR into the project, so perhaps it isn’t quite an Apple-to-orange comparison.
But despite Cook’s coy approach to describing Apple’s viewpoint, all of the sightings of its vehicle hardware in Silicon Valley, and a report filed with the California DMV in 2018 regarding a human-caused traffic accident, Cook refused to comment on if or when an Apple-branded car would come to fruition.
“We investigate so many things internally,” he said. “Many of them never see the light of day. I’m not saying that one will not.”
This isn’t a surprise, though. Apple is quite secretive about its internal plans. But the conversation leading up to Cook’s comments on an Apple car was actually focused on Tesla, specifically Elon Musk’s tweets accusing him of refusing to take a meeting to discuss the possibility of Apple acquiring Tesla during the Model 3’s “darkest days.”
Cook said just a few words on Tesla:
“You know, I’ve never spoken to Elon, although I have great admiration and respect for the company he’s built. I think Tesla has done an unbelievable job of not only establishing the lead but keeping the lead for such a long period of time in the EV space. So I have great appreciation for them.”
Whether or not an Apple-branded car will materialize is still unknown. However, it’s clear that Apple has been working on something in the sector and Tim Cook’s recent comments suggest that mastering vehicle autonomy is more crucial to the project’s success than the actual underpinnings of the “robot” hardware. At the end of the day, this just reaffirms how much Big Tech’s influence on the automotive sector will focus on software solutions.