Technology

Apple car fleet grows further: What will be the result?

Apple Car Engineers
Image Credit: MacRumors / YouTube video (screenshot)

The not-so-secretive Apple car project has been in existence for the last several years. In April last year, Apple secured the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) permit to test its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company’s fleet of self-driving cars has grown consistently since last year. Now folks at MacReports have found that the Apple car fleet in California has grown to 55 vehicles, up from 27 vehicles in January and 45 vehicles in March.

Besides registering 55 cars with the DMV, Apple also has as many as 83 certified human safety drivers for the autonomous cars. The DMV permits enable Apple to legally drive its self-driving cars on public roads as long as there is a human safety driver behind the wheel to take over the control upon noticing any sign of trouble. The vehicles are equipped with sensors and software that Apple is developing.

Notably, the tech giant hasn’t yet applied for the California DMV’s driverless testing permits. It allows a company to test a driverless car on public roads without a human safety driver behind the wheel. The DMV started issuing the driverless testing permits in April this year. According to TechCrunch, the regulator is currently reviewing two applications from unnamed companies, but hasn’t yet granted any permits for complete driverless testing.

According to the California DMV, the iPhone maker now has the second largest fleet of self-driving cars in the state. Apple is only behind General Motors’ Cruise, which has 104 driverless cars on California roads. So far, the DMV has issued permits to a total of 53 companies that collectively have 409 self-driving vehicles and 1,573 safety drivers. Google’s Waymo has registered 51 vehicles in the state. It is followed by Tesla (39), BMW (12), and Toyota (11).

The reason Apple has more autonomous vehicles on California roads than Waymo and Uber is that the other companies have expanded their testing operations to Michigan, Arizona, and other states as well. For instance, Waymo once had more than 100 self-driving cars in California, but it has since moved a large part of its fleet to Atlanta, Arizona, and Michigan. Uber left California back in 2016 when the state DMV threatened to revoke its self-driving vehicle registrations. General Motors is also testing its self-driving Chevy Bolt in New York.

Apple hasn’t built its own car yet, though the company had originally hired more than a thousand engineers to design a full-fledged Apple car. After facing multiple hurdles, the tech giant shifted its focus from designing an Apple car to developing the underlying self-driving technology first. Apple is currently testing its autonomous driving systems by installing them on Lexus RX450h SUVs.

Last year, Apple’s customized Lexus RX450h SUV was spotted in California. It was outfitted with numerous radar units, cameras, and six Velodyne LIDAR sensors in a white casing on the roof. The compute stack was also placed on the roof, though most other automakers put the computing stack in the trunk of their vehicles.

The tech giant had reportedly given the Apple car team until the end of 2017 to prove the viability of the project. Since Apple is adding more vehicles to its fleet, it believes that the project is worth pursuing and investing billions of dollars. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an interview with Bloomberg last year that the company was looking at autonomous driving as “a core technology.” Cook described it as “the mother of all AI projects.”

The long-term outcome of the Apple car project is still uncertain. After developing the autonomous driving technology, Apple could either design its own car or license the technology to other automakers. Another possibility is that the company could launch a platform for ride-hailing services. It’s worth pointing out that licensing the technology is not in Apple’s DNA. The company likes to control all the aspects of its products.

If the tech giant chooses to design and launch an Apple car, it will have to build a large supplier network. Apple will also have to commit to providing parts and support to customers for much longer than it is used to. It’s also possible that the company could include some of the features being developed under the autonomous driving technology into the future versions of CarPlay.

Recently, Guggenheim Securities analyst Robert Cirha told investors that Apple would either go “all-in” or abandon the mobility market completely within a couple of years. It means the tech giant will either eventually build a full-fledged Apple car or scrap the project by 2020.

It makes little sense to hire thousands of experts and invest billions of dollars into autonomous driving only to license the technology to other automakers. Given the size of the total addressable market (TAM), Cirha believes Apple will likely go “all-in” and control the entire ecosystem of its cars.