Apple CEO Admits to Autonomous Car Project

Posted on June 13, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, iOS, Mobile with 28 Comments

Apple CEO Admits to Autonomous Car Project

Apple CEO Tim Cook had his Perestroika moment this week when he opened up about a secret autonomous car project that his firm has been working on.

Mr. Cook, tear down this wall.

“We’re focusing on autonomous [car] systems,” Mr. Cook said during a Bloomberg interview. “We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects, [and] it’s probably one of the most difficult A.I. projects actually to work on.”

A public admission like this is rare for Apple, but perhaps this is part of a broader plan to slowly open up the company in these post-Steve Jobs years. Cook has opened up parts of iOS, which one might consider Apple’s crown jewels, by building extensibility into the system. And more recently, it has been open about its mistakes, first by apologizing for its lack of Mac Pro updates, and more recently by quickly revving its lackluster new MacBook Pro laptops.

That said, Apple’s car project was perhaps the least secret of Apple’s secret projects. So Cook is essentially confirming something that we already knew.

But he also explains why Apple is so concerned with this technology. And it seems to boil down to the company not missing a major tech wave, similar to the discussions we’ve had around Microsoft and other platform makers.

“There is a major disruption looming there,” he said, “not only for self-driving cars, but also the electrification [of cars]. If you’ve driven an all-electric car, it’s actually a marvelous experience. And it’s a marvelous experience not to stop at the gas station. Plus, you have ride-sharing on top of this. So you’ve got three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”

As Cook notes above, Apple is focusing on the autonomous systems part of this, but he also notes that self-driving cars are only a subset of that part as well, though he doesn’t elaborate on that.

“Autonomy is something that is incredibly exciting for us,” he says. “But we’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying, from a product point of view, what we will do. But we are being straightforward that it is a core technology that we view as very important.”


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Comments (28)

28 responses to “Apple CEO Admits to Autonomous Car Project”

  1. scribz

    I just don't see them getting into building cars. And as for licensing a system, why would BMW prefer something Apple came up with and controls?

    • Stooks

      In reply to scribz:

      Why do companies get rid of on premise data centers and move most if not everything to the cloud?


      BMW is a premium brand, so is Apple. If BMW can outsource that AI driving to another brand with the same reputation and save money by not having an entire AI develop team inside BMW, which makes cars, why not?

      • Daekar

        In reply to Stooks:

        Control, and not being beholden to another company. Once they give up control of the car systems, they're just the hardware builder for someone else's rolling computer platform.

        • Narg

          In reply to Daekar:

          Also, it sends the "company at fault" to a 3rd party. That may be a want. Not to mention, possibilities of best in class type of system. Not every company can do it best. Also, not saying Apple will be the best, but if they are why wouldn't a car maker want this?

    • CaedenV

      In reply to scribz:

      Because BMW's idea of a great user interface is a finickey dial... seriously, lets let the tech companies come up with the systems to run and secure the vehicles, and let the manufacturers build good cars. Google, MS, and Apple could not make a decent car to save a life; VW Group, Honda, and GM can't put in vehicle security if their lives depended on it... somewhere in here is a beautiful relationship!

  2. glenn8878

    It's marvelous to spend $1200 install a charger for every electric car that you might own. Or look for a charger that's usually occupied. I pump my car every 2 weeks. That's not a hassle.

    Autonomous cars don't have to be all electric. In fact, they should be the same price as regular cars.

  3. Tony Barrett

    Just why would Apple want to do this? Google have been doing it for years, so it sort of makes sense for them, but Apple? Are they playing off their 'fashion brand' status? What reason would someone actually want to buy a whole car that's got an Apple logo on it? Would you actually trust something like this over a car from Ford or BMW, who have decades of automobile experience? Likewise, I guess it's only a matter of time before MS announce something like this. Would you honestly want to get in in a car built by MS and powered by Windows? No, thought not.

  4. Steve Martin

    A lot of options here for Apple. And being as stealthy as they are I wonder where they are in comparison to the 800 pound Googrilla. Google has made their work pretty visible and has poured a lot into the R&D.

    The test will be three parts: Reliability -- Will it get you where you want every time. Liability -- Who will cover the costs of the first accidents and problems that happen on public roads when they inevitably occur. Cost. Are you aiming for big fleet contracts or consumer market.

    Taxi and Trucking fleets will pay a lot of money to cut down their workforce costs. Consumers will be much more cost conscious.

    As for electric vehicles. I think fuel cell technology is going to be where the breakthrough happens. Carrying around thousands of pounds of dangerous, impossible to recycle batteries is not sustainable.

  5. nbplopes

    The interesting bit about AI in self driving cars it is not driven by the Cloud :) Data is not much of a problem to hold locally if you think that the entire Wikipedia compressed around 12GB only. In this context, the Cloud is good for collecting and storing data, but due to latency an AI only solution is not good enough at the moment.

  6. rameshthanikodi

    why would Apple suddenly admit this? This is so un-apple like of them. They are usually secretive of stuff. Something smells fishy.

    • PincasX

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      Well, to a certain extent, they have to. To be able to work on this type of thing involves getting permits and public filings. They could deny it but the public record is out there so doing so would be pointless at best. All Cook did was confirm what was already known via publicly avalible documents.

  7. bbold

    Seems like a very expensive venture to me just to make some navigation software. For the amount of money they are pouring into this, billons??, they must have a physical Apple car somewhere on the drawing board. Why go through all this trouble just to make car software work better with Apple's iTunes? That already exists. What I've kind of figured out about Tim Cook is that he only gives us the bare minimum details only when necessary, and there's almost always something financial tied to it (stocks, to quell rumors and keep interest in Apple high, etc.) Perhaps this was just a small leak/nod to get their stock prices back up after a huge dip the past week?

  8. Brian Hodges

    The iCar will have three speeds, won't exceed 55 mph, cost $95,000, and the iSheep will line up around the block for it.

    • nbplopes

      In reply to Brian Hodges:


      Surface Car:

      Can you imagine needing to detach and reattach the steering wheel at 120mph because it stopped working? And if it you don't crash the first time because of it, you will be certain that it will happen for the next 6 months or until you basically get thrown out in a turn because the doors suddenly open ... and you don't know why.

      Wait, the car sensors somewhat got jammed. Better disable and re-enable the sensors :) Maybe its the router or something.

      How silly of you, feeling the need to send and receive handsfree phone calls in the Surface Car, not to mention SMS. You need to understand that MS would need to support the pairing of hundreds if not thousands of different smartphones models with the Surface Car, Apple has the iPhone so its much easier. Wait for the Surface Car Always Connected Program and eSIm for that. You will see, it the start of the democratization of smartphone pairing with Cars.

      After you had all these problems and experienced limitations, you can always join the Surface Car Insiders Program and get connected (not together) with millions of users experiencing similar stuff, experience a social revolution, you might even get the chance to sing the Kumbaya through the robust Skype communication infrastructure.

      Did I mention that the Holo Car is coming along with Mix Reality?

      Exciting isn't it?


      PS: Meanwhile the iSheep seam to be looking at drag and drop, something that is here since 1997 because before Windows NT there was no drag & drop. Silly people or should I say, iSheep.

    • CaedenV

      In reply to Brian Hodges:

      None of those speeds will be reverse, because Apple is so forward thinking!

    • Waethorn

      In reply to Brian Hodges:

      It'll be made of white plastic, but Apple will call it "polylumanoxite"

    • Locust Infested Orchard Inc.

      In reply to Brian Hodges:

      Also, they'll be a new model same time every year, and every component company will want a slice of the action by flooding the market with various iCar parts, e.g., an adapter to place on the end of the iCar charging power plug, because the iCar has a proprietary non-standard 18 pin connector.

  9. harmjr

    I have always thought that we will never see an iCar. However if they are smart they will design the future and patent and set back and let the cash roll in. I think all three of them Google Microsoft and Apple are all doing this.

  10. Narg

    Apple's version of autonomy might be a good/wantable thing, at least for some mind sets. Seems to me it would be dirt simple, yet just work as expected each and every time. More of the "just let it drive for you" style of autonomy. Unlike, say Tesla, where you still have a lot of passive interaction and information available to you as you drive, probably because Tesla is based on Linux and very Android like in it's behavior.

    I'm just speculating from current Apple design and products of course.

  11. Darmok N Jalad

    Sadly, autonomous driving is becoming a necessity, not a convenience. There was a time when I thought there was no way I would trust a computer to drive a car at highway speeds, but as I see more and more people trying to operate a smartphone while driving, I'm pretty much convinced that a computer will do a better job. I'm not claiming to be above operating a phone while driving either. Even the hands-free systems have issues that take your attention away from the road.

    There is no doubt this will be our future, but with the lifespan of cars getting so much longer, I wonder when we will actually see this feature on a majority of cars on the road.

    • skane2600

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      Probably better to evaluate alternatives when both are actually available. IMO, a fully capable self-driving system is more complex than anything Apple, MS, Google, Facebook, Amazon or Tesla has ever done. The legal issues will also be difficult to navigate. When a self-driving car crashes, the owner shouldn't be held responsible but the company who designed the system should. Legally the idea that lives are saved in the aggregate (if in fact, they really are) means nothing. Expect massive rewards to victims due to the deep pockets of corporations and the fact that people generally don't pity them the way they might say a drunk driver who made a mistake.

    • YouWereWarned

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      Every smartphone can sense that it is moving, and could thereby be programmed to restrict talking and texting to moments at rest. We are allowed to buy cigarettes despite the obvious danger, and likewise are allowed to use our phones when we shouldn't. One of many thrill-seeking behaviors left over from days swinging through the trees....

    • Waethorn

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      "I see more and more people trying to operate a smartphone while driving"

      Remind me not to drive in your area. Ontario has a law that bans using a cellphone or other electronic device in your hand while driving. Hands-free options are legal, but distracted drivers can still be pulled over and fined. Cops have a zero-tolerance policy for it, and it's getting to a point where traffic radio shows ask callers to call in and shame drivers for doing it on the road.

      "There is no doubt this will be our future, but with the lifespan of cars getting so much longer, I wonder when we will actually see this feature on a majority of cars on the road."

      If Microsoft had their way, we'd see more and more people leasing cars with no option to buy, no option to repair, and they'd call it "cars-as-a-service".

      • evox81

        In reply to Waethorn:

        Most places have "zero tolerance" policies regarding phone use while driving. And yet, people still do it, even in Ontario. That's what the original commenter was referring to.

  12. red.radar

    Sounds like its a moonshot project to for his Machine Learning and AI teams. Obviously they want to ride the wave, but I think its also about the Research and knowledge they gain along the journey. That knowledge can make their core products better. I think we are already seeing benefits with Siri and Apples Do not disturb I am driving mode...