What do we really know about Apple's self-driving car, now that it's been seen?

May 2, 2017

Late last week, an eagle-eyed car fan in California spotted a self-driving vehicle on the roads of Silicon Valley. That in itself wasn't weird--after all, plenty of start-ups in the area are trying their hand at autonomous technology.

What made this unusual was that the car was owned by Apple.

The car in question was a Lexus SUV, much like the ones that Waymo (formerly, Google's self-driving car project) has used in its test fleet of self-driving vehicles. It was spied coming out of an Apple facility, equipped with off-the-shelf hardware, including a LiDAR system manufactured by Velodyne (similar to the kind that Uber has been using in its test fleet).

The timing of the car's appearance is no coincidence. On April 14, Apple received approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to begin testing autonomous cars on state roads. To be granted that approval, Apple had to submit a fair bit of paperwork related to its self-driving vehicles, including safety plans. The paperwork also included details about Apple's test fleet, which at the moment consists of three 2015 Lexus RX450h SUVs.

What does it all mean?

Apple has never truly commented on its self-driving car program, and when asked about the Lexus spotted last week, company reps' lips remained sealed.

However, the sight of Apple testing a self-driving car--one that the company didn't design itself--is the strongest confirmation yet that Apple's autonomous vehicle project has done a dramatic 180 in the past 12 months.

When news first began to leak about Apple's hush-hush Project Titan in early 2015, everyone was intrigued but no one was truly surprised. CarPlay had made it clear that the tech giant was interested in dominating the world's dashboards, so why shouldn't it expand and take over the entire car?

Furthermore, given Apple's proprietary, control-freak tendencies, it seemed totally normal that Apple would want to build its own hardware (i.e. a vehicle) to accompany its self-driving software. That line of thinking was supported by evidence that soon arose in the news, like a lawsuit claiming that Apple had poached battery designers.

In other words, all signs pointed to a fully electric, self-driving, Apple-branded vehicle. As recently of April 2016, that still seemed to be Apple's plan, with rumors swirling that the company had set up shop in Berlin and even picked a company to build its car.

But then something changed. Longtime Apple employee Bob Mansfield took over the reins of Project Titan in April 2016, and around the same time, the division laid off dozens of employees. Project Titan hadn't been shuttered, but it was clearly going in a new direction--a far leaner, meaner one.

To many, that suggested that Apple had opted to avoid wading too deeply into the dangerous waters of car design and instead stick with its strengths--specifically, building software. That was unofficially confirmed in October 2016, when insiders told Bloomberg that Apple was frightened away from building its own self-driving car due to the associated costs and the smaller profit margins.

So now, we find ourselves in 2017, with Apple following a path that's already been blazed by Google.

You might recall that Google, too, once appeared intent on building its own self-driving cars, but then had a change of heart. Perhaps after reviewing its own spotty history with hardware, Google decided it would be safer and more profitable to license its self-driving car software to automakers. It's already begun following through on that plan, most notably via a high-profile partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. 

Apple's future

For now, we expect to see Apple going head-to-head with an increasing number of competitors in the field of self-driving software. It's fairly late out of the gate, and it's got a lot of ground to cover before it can consider itself a true contender, but Apple has at least three thing going for it:

1. Money. At last count, Apple had about $250 billion burning a hole in its pocket. That's a lot of cash to throw at projects like this. 

2. A great eye for design. Even if Apple doesn't build cars themselves, it can still capitalize on its design sensibility. Hate it all you want, few can match the intuitiveness and simplicity of Apple software. 

3. A base of dedicated fans. Apple's sexy products (and to be fair, its charismatic leaders) have generated huge brand loyalty. People wait in line for hours or even days to get their hands on new Apple devices. If and when Apple rolls out autonomous car technology, millions of fanboys and fangirls around the world will be eager to pay for it.

Now that Apple's cars are on public roads, the company will be required to submit annual safety reports. So, in the not-too-distant future, we'll know something about how well Apple's self-driving car software is faring, even if Apple still refuses to admit that it's a thing.

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