Describing it as the "mother of all AI projects," Apple CEO Tim Cook today confirmed rumors that the company is developing a system for autonomous vehicles. While that's not quite the same as the company announcing it will build its own self-driving vehicles, it does mark the entrance of a major new player into the industry.
Known internally as "Project Titan," the effort includes the work of more than 1,000 engineers since it was launched in 2014. Cook said in a television interview that the company is focusing more on the core technology required for an autonomous system, rather than on developing an entire vehicle itself.
Your Autonomous Ford, Powered by Apple
It is not clear what that means from a product standpoint. Cook seemed to suggest in the interview that Apple is more concerned about the AI (artificial intelligence) that would be used to power an autonomous vehicle instead of creating a new Apple product. That might mean that the company plans to license its autonomous vehicle AI to car manufacturers, such as Tesla and Ford, rather than building its own iCar.
That would seem to represent a significant shift from the original ambitions the company had when it first launched the project several years ago. Apple had been rumored to be interested in developing a full-fledged, market-ready product that combined hardware and software similar to the way its iPhones, Apple Watches, and Macs are sold.
At the time, the company was thought to be aiming to release its own electric, autonomous vehicle into the market as early as 2019. But the project was beset by cost overruns and a rapidly expanding headcount, so last year Apple reportedly shifted its focus to developing the software to power self-driving cars.
Licensing or Partnership?
Potentially, the company could partner up with an established automaker. That would be in line with the strategies other companies have followed. Google’s Waymo unit has already partnered with Fiat Chrysler, while BMW and General Motors have been hunting for acquisitions in the autonomous vehicle start-up space.
Alternatively, Apple could opt to license its AI to a number of carmakers, similar to the way Microsoft licenses its Windows OS to different OEMs. That would represent a dramatic shift in strategy for the company, though. Apple is famous for designing products that closely integrate the hardware and software, something that's practically impossible to do when licensing your code to multiple hardware providers.
But then, Apple has never stepped into the automobile market before, either. Whatever it plans to do, the company appears deeply committed to its self-driving car tech. In April, Apple received a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to begin testing three autonomous Lexus SUVs equipped with its sensors and other hardware.