With the race to build self-driving cars accelerating, Apple’s plans for an electric vehicle raise one overarching question: Why would the company focus on building an electric car rather than a driverless one?
There are a few ways to think about this, but it should be pointed out that we don’t actually know that Apple isn’t committed to a driverless car. Apple is famously secretive, and often has a deliberate hand in the information that leaks about its plans. The Wall Street Journal, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, reported that although Apple won’t make its first electric car fully autonomous, that capability is “part of the product’s long-term plans.”
The cost of actually developing a driverless car entails more than financial risk. Apple has the money, but it also has to be calculated about what sorts of gambles it takes and when. Silicon Valley is already convinced that driverless cars are the future, but actually getting them on the roads—and not just test vehicles in Mountain View or in Austin, as Google has done—will still require surmounting enormous regulatory and technological challenges. “I don’t think anyone is clear, at the moment, on how autonomous driving is actually going to get introduced,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon.
Perhaps Apple wants to establish itself in the car industry by first introducing a car fully integrated with its existing operating systems before eventually moving to a driverless model. That gradual approach to autonomy is the one favored by traditional automakers, who plan to move their vehicles toward driverlessness feature-by-feature. And, besides, why not let Google and Uber fight regulatory battles and confront difficult safety questions in public? “No one is going to want to realize autonomous driving into the world until there’s proof that it’s much safer, like a factor of 100 safer, than having a human drive,” Moore told me. “But even then, at a factor of 100 safer, it won’t be long before there is an accident.” In Moore’s estimation, those first accidents will set back the driverless-car movement by a couple of years.
Looking back, perhaps something can be learned from Apple’s first foray into the phone market, a comparison that also serves as a reminder that the company has a history of testing the waters in a new industry before diving in. In September 2005, Apple teamed up with Motorola and Cingular Wireless on the Rokr, a cell phone that ran iTunes. “We’ve worked closely with Motorola to deliver the world’s best music experience on a mobile phone,” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs ina statement at the time.
Just over a year later, Jobs announced the iPhone, calling it “a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone.”
Five years from now, if the company meets its target, we may better understand what kind of car Apple truly wants to build.