It’s been two years since rumors about an “Apple car” first emerged. Not surprisingly, the notoriously secretive company hasn’t divulged any details about its plans. But if a car is on the horizon, Cupertino can’t stay quiet for too long. You can hide a smartphone in a lab, but it’s difficult to not have a public presence when developing a vehicle, which requires road testing, typically in plain sight.
Even if testing occurs at a private facility, it’s almost impossible to hide from the prying lens of spy photographers, who make a living hanging around test tracks capturing car companies’ heavily camouflaged prototype vehicles. Apple-specific details that have leaked out include an initial hiring binge that scooped up top automotive talent, inquiries about an autonomous car testing ground in Northern California, and even a trip to Germany for Tim Cook to reportedly inspect BMW’s assembly process for its i3 electric vehicle.
But despite reports that Apple’s car project had hit the skids, the California DMV last month granted Apple a license to test autonomous vehicles on the state’s highways. And last week, images of an autonomous Lexus SUV Apple is apparently using for self-driving R&D was spotted rolling through Silicon Valley. While this is a sign Apple is still in the game, there are other indications the tech icon is trailing the pack.
Apple Is Behind
The California DMV is a big step forward for Apple’s autonomous car program, but also puts it behind 29 other companies already testing in the Golden State, not to mention elsewhere in the country.
As for the Apple-outfitted Lexus recently spotted on public roads, MIT Technology Review declared that it looks more like “some of the vehicles that rolled into the DARPA Urban Challenge back in 2007 than it does with those being tested by Waymo or Uber.”
While Apple’s self-driving test vehicle looks less refined than those from Ford or Hyundai—which better integrate various sensors and cameras—even more telling of potential problems are the people behind the wheel.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that engineers serving as Apple’s requisite “safety drivers” during on-road tests are PhDs in robotics from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The article suggests that having rocket scientists piloting test cars shows Apple “is still in the early phases of testing its technology.” Jeremy Carlson, an automotive analyst with research firm IHS Markit, told MIT Technology Review using such high-level engineers could allow Apple to accelerate autonomous vehicle development. But Waymo employs trained technicians for this role, as I learned when I took a test ride in a Google Lexus.
Meanwhile, Business Insider recently noted that Apple’s new director of AI, Ruslan Salakhutdinov, is overseeing the Project Titan hiring process, implying the company is behind in building a team at a time when top self-driving talent is at a premium.
Of course, Apple can afford to mess around with emerging tech, and you can never count it out when it comes to disrupting an industry. But it’s clear Apple has some catching up to do.