The future of the Apple car project still seems uncertain. But Apple is in no mood to slow down the testing of its self-driving vehicles. Just a couple of days after one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona, a new report claims that Apple has significantly increased the number of test vehicles in California. In fact, the iPhone maker has more autonomous vehicles on California roads than Tesla and Waymo.
Citing data from California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Tim Bradshaw of the Financial Times reports that Apple now has 45 test vehicles on public roads in the state. It has the second largest fleet of self-driving cars in California, right behind General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise Automation, which has 110 cars. In April last year, Apple had received permission to test its technology using three vehicles. The fleet grew to 27 vehicles by the end of January 2018. In less than two months, Apple has added another 18 cars.
It is a clear indication that the tech giant has accelerated its R&D efforts in the field of autonomous driving. Apple is among more than 50 companies testing driverless cars in California. Tesla has received permission to test 39 vehicles in the state, Waymo has 24, while Uber is testing 29 vehicles. Uber has temporarily suspended its testing in the wake of the Arizona incident involving one of its cars.
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Apple has the second largest fleet in California primarily because other automakers have expanded their testing operations to Arizona, Michigan, and other states as well. For instance, Waymo has reduced the number of test vehicles in California from 100 in June 2017 to 24 now, at the same time expanding its fleet in Arizona, Atlanta, and a few other states. General Motors is also testing its autonomous Chevy Bolt in the New York City.
Apple is testing its autonomous driving systems using Lexus RX450h SUVs. The test vehicles have been spotted many times on the public roads. Late last year, Voyage co-founder MacCallister Higgins spotted a customized Apple car outfitted with numerous cameras, six Velodyne-made LIDAR sensors, and some radar units on the roof. Higgins said Apple had also placed the compute stack on the roof rather than putting it in the trunk of the vehicle.
The recent accident involving an Uber autonomous vehicle could affect the development and rollout of self-driving cars. It’s the first casualty caused by a self-driving car, even though the test vehicle had a human safety driver behind the wheel. The car was in the autonomous driving mode, though. The incident could force regulators to bring more rules to ensure public safety. Automakers want to launch fully autonomous cars in the next few years. General Motors’ subsidiary Cruise Automation plans to introduce a car without a steering wheel in 2019.
Apple was originally rumored to be developing a full-fledged Apple car with autonomous driving capabilities. However, the company shifted its focus to developing the underlying self-driving technology first after the departure of many senior executives. Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg TV that autonomous driving was the “mother of all AI projects.” Apple has filed numerous patents related to navigation, machine learning, and safety for autonomous vehicles.
The long-term outcome of the Apple car project is still shrouded in mystery. Apple has acknowledged on more than one occasion that it was working on the autonomous driving technology. But it hasn’t yet revealed how or where it would use the technology. It could launch a platform for ride-hailing services. Or, once it has developed the self-driving technology, it could go back to designing an Apple car from scratch.
There is also the possibility of Apple licensing its autonomous driving technology to third-party automakers. However, Apple has built its entire business by controlling both the software and hardware of its products. So, the idea of licensing the technology to other automakers doesn’t align with Apple’s philosophy. If Apple chooses to build and launch an Apple car, it will have to build a reliable supplier network and promise to provide components and support for much longer than it is used to.
Guggenheim Securities analyst Robert Cirha recently said that Apple would either go “all-in” or exit the mobility market within a couple of years. Cirha says Apple will either expand the project to design its own cars or scrap the project by 2020. The tech giant would not hire thousands of engineers and invest billions of dollars into self-driving only to license the technology to other vendors.
Cirha says Apple will most likely go “all-in” because of the technology disruption and the huge size of the total addressable market (TAM). Building a full-blown Apple car would allow the company to control the entire ecosystem, though it could get a third-party to assemble the vehicles for it.