We have known for a long time that Apple is working on an autonomous car project. But it was still remarkable to hear Apple CEO Tim Cook confirm the news in a public interview.
“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” Cook said in a Bloomberg Television appearance on June 5. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He went on to call it “the mother of all AI projects” and added that it’s “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”
Though Apple has historically been reticent to talk about its future, Cook and the company have gotten a bit more loose-lipped in recent years, blabbing about Apple’s interest in augmented reality, for instance, before announcing a product at the company’s recent Worldwide Developer’s Conference.
In this case, Cook managed to say something without really saying much. We knew, via patents and regulatory filings and press reports, that Apple had some kind of AV project cooking. Cook told Bloomberg that with disruption in self-driving tech, electric vehicles, and ride-hailing, automobiles represent a rapidly changing area.
“There is a major disruption looming there,” Cook said. “You’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”
Beyond that, Cook didn’t make any great revelations. In terms of the “autonomous systems” he mentioned, well, that could refer to an incredibly wide range of things. A platform that other companies plug into their cars to turn them into AVs? An actual Apple car? The latter would seem to be folly, but who knows?
What is clear is that even if Apple has endless resources to pursue this dream, the company faces remarkable odds. In April, when it received permission from California to test AV cars on the state’s roads, for instance, Apple was the 30th player to receive such status. Competitors higher on that list include Tesla, Google, Uber, Ford, Volkswagen, and Mercedes.
If Apple decides to create a software system to enable other manufacturers to create AVs, the question remains as to whether Apple can develop anything truly superior. And even if it does, most large companies have a profound fear of becoming so deeply dependent on a giant like Apple. (Cough, music industry, cough).
This would seem to push Apple to make its own vehicle and control the whole experience, as it has traditionally done in other markets. But creating the supply network and manufacturing capacity to produce a meaningful number of cars is a decades-long project. Apple can, of course, afford to take the long view. But while there is contract manufacturing for autos, it’s nowhere near as extensive as it is for, say, consumer electronics.
Finally, anyone pushing AVs is pushing against huge cultural and economic inertia. Hybrid electric vehicles are a pretty good example of how slow the market for cars can be to change. Since 1999, when HEVs started to become more available, the market has grown, but at a crawl.
In 2014, there were 347,000 HEVs sold in the U.S., a number that actually fell from the previous year. That was out of 7.9 million autos sold in the U.S. that year — or about 4 percent. In 2016, meanwhile, 159,139 electric vehicles were sold.
These are tiny numbers, making it tough to recover any massive investment in infrastructure for manufacturing.
And that’s without even looking at challenges like regulatory changes needed, insurance reform, or consumer education.
Of course, we can dream that Apple being Apple it could change all of this with one magical product. But the reality is that widespread use of AVs likely remains decades away. Even with Apple’s remarkably recent history, its ability to impact this sector will likely remain limited.