Apple car: design, self-driving technology and what we know so far

The iPhone maker is set to challenge Tesla in the electric vehicle market but is keeping its cards close to its chest

Apple is aiming to build electric cars for customers’ personal use, competing with the likes of Tesla, Audi and General Motors. Reuters
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Apple has arguably changed our lives more than any other company in the world during the past two decades or so. But aside from its digital devices such as iPhones, laptops, watches and operating systems, is there another direction it could go?

The somewhat tentative answer to that has been transport, in the form of electric self-driving vehicles.

Is Apple gearing up to challenge electric vehicle market leader Tesla, and what progress has been made so far?

Here's what we know:

What is Apple planning?

An Apple-branded car has been mooted for some years now, with sporadic reports of progress being made.

However, the Cupertino-based company has always remained tight-lipped about how far it has progressed and what exactly it plans to do beyond stating it is working on autonomous systems.

“We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems … some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives across all of Apple,” the company said in 2019.

In 2021, chief executive Tim Cook told The New York Times that self-driving technology was being worked on but was reluctant to share specific details.

“In terms of the work that we’re doing [in that field], obviously, I’m going to be a little coy on that,” Mr Cook said.

“The autonomy itself is a core technology … If you step back, the car, in a lot of ways, is a robot. An autonomous car is a robot. And so there’s lots of things you can do with autonomy. And we’ll see what Apple does.”

Apple secretly started its automated and EV development — Project Titan — in 2014, and hired key executives from Tesla to propel its autonomous and EV initiatives.

Reuters reported in December 2020 that Apple was aiming to have a car on the roads in 2024, while Bloomberg in November reported a prospective date of 2025.

That target, however, was said to be dependent on the company’s ability to complete the self-driving system.

What will the car look like?

There has been no official word from Apple yet, so it's a case of using your imagination to some extent.

What is known is that Apple filed a patent with the United States Patent & Trademark Office in 2017 for a "VR system for vehicles that may implement methods that address problems with vehicles in motion that may result in motion sickness for passengers".

The patent filing said: "The VR system may provide virtual views that match visual cues with the physical motions that a passenger experiences. The VR system may provide immersive VR experiences by replacing the view of the real world with virtual environments.

"Active vehicle systems and/or vehicle control systems may be integrated with the VR system to provide physical effects with the virtual experiences. The virtual environments may be altered to accommodate a passenger upon determining that the passenger is prone to or is exhibiting signs of motion sickness."

So, if passengers inside the vehicle are immersed in VR, is there any need for windows?

Apple's ideal car would have no steering wheel or pedals, and its interior would be designed around hands-off driving, Bloomberg reported in November.

This sounds much like the Tesla robotaxi, which is currently under development. Tesla chief Elon Musk has confirmed the lack of pedals and steering wheel for the robotaxi, which makes it sound more like a train than a car.

"It is going to be highly optimised for autonomy — meaning it will not have steering wheel or pedals. There are a number of other innovations around it that I think are quite exciting, but it is fundamentally optimised to achieve the lowest fully considered cost per mile or kilometre when counting everything,” Mr Musk said last month.

“I think [the robotaxi] really will be a massive driver of Tesla’s growth.”

Bloomberg reported that one option Apple discussed features an interior similar to the one in the Lifestyle Vehicle from Canoo. In that car, passengers sit along the sides of the vehicle and face each other like they would in a limousine.

Where are we with self-driving cars?

Apple has had a fleet of 69 Lexus SUVs experimenting with its technology, according to California's Department of Motor Vehicles.

Although, as Tesla has found out, safety is a major hurdle to overcome.

Tesla also says it expects “full self-driving” beta test software to be released to all US customers who purchased the feature by the end of the year. About 100,000 owners are testing the system now on public roads, Mr Musk said. However, it will have to get past regulators once deemed ready.

"Of any technology development I've ever been involved in, I've never really seen more false dawns, where it seems that we're gonna break through, but we don't, as I've seen in full self-driving," he said. "To solve full self-driving you actually have to solve real world artificial intelligence, which nobody has solved.

"I think we will achieve that this year."

More than 1,400 autonomous cars are estimated to be in use in the US.

It has not been without controversy. Last year, a Tesla car in Houston, Texas, was reported to have driven itself into a tree, killing two people.

Updated: May 20, 2022, 1:12 PM