After years toiling away in secret on its car project, Apple CEO Tim Cook has for the first time laid out exactly what the company is up to in the automotive market: it’s concentrating on self-driving technology.
“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” Cook said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.
“We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects,” Cook said in his most detailed comments to date on Apple’s plans in the car space. “It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on.”
The prospect of self-driving cars has seen a slew of technology companies push into the car industry, which is estimated to be worth US$6,7 trillion by 2030, according to McKinsey & Co. Alphabet’s Waymo unit has signed partnerships with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Lyft to develop the technology. And car makers from BMW to General Motors have opened sizeable Silicon Valley offices and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire autonomous vehicle start-ups.
Apple had initially been seeking to build its own car, before recalibrating those ambitions last year to prioritize the underlying technology for autonomous driving, Bloomberg News reported. The iPhone maker had hired more than a thousand engineers to work on Project Titan, as the car team is known internally, after it started in 2014.
Ballooning costs and headcount led to Apple veteran Bob Mansfield being given the reins of the team in 2016. Cook has never before openly outlined Apple’s plans, though public filings have surfaced in recent months that provided snapshots of Apple’s efforts.
The iPhone maker secured a permit from the California department of motor vehicles in April to test three self-driving sports utility vehicles, photos of which emerged several weeks later. A half dozen vehicles had been surreptitiously testing the autonomous technology on public roads in and around the San Francisco Bay area for at least a year, according to someone familiar with Project Titan. Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr declined to comment on how long the company has been conducting road tests.
In December, Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, penned a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealing the company’s interest in automotive technology. It became public when it was published on a US federal website. In the letter, Kenner wrote about the company’s excitement surrounding the potential for automated systems in fields like transportation.
“There is a major disruption looming there,” Cook said, citing self-driving technology, electric vehicles and ride-hailing. “You’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”
Cook was also bullish about the prospects for electric vehicles, a market which last week helped Tesla become the world’s fourth biggest car maker by market capitalisation, even as it ranks well outside the top 10 by unit sales.
“It’s a marvelous experience not to stop at the filling station or the gas station,” Cook said.
Apple invested $1bn last year in Didi Chuxing, the biggest Chinese ride-hailing service. The announcement came soon after Mansfield took over Project Titan and set about cutting hundreds of engineers. Whereas Apple had initially been building its own car, Mansfield scrapped those plans in favor of building an autonomous driving system. The company will make a decision on whether to proceed with the push later this year, the people said at the time.
Cook was hesitant to disclose whether Apple will ultimately manufacture its own car. “We’ll see where it takes us,” he said. “We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.” — Reported by Alex Webb and Emily Chang, (c) 2017 Bloomberg LP