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 in?
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 self-driving 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 are doing [in that field], obviously, I am 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 will 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 self-driving and EV initiatives.
Reuters reported in December 2020 that Apple was aiming to have a car on the roads in 2024, while Bloomberg last year reported a prospective date of 2025.
However, that target was said to be dependent on the company’s ability to complete the self-driving system.
Will the release date be 2025?
Not according to a new report by Bloomberg, which says Apple has scaled back its ambitious self-driving plans and postponed the car's target launch date to 2026. The iPhone maker's shares fell 2.4 per cent after the report.
There are also going to be some design changes.
What will the car look like?
There has been no official word from Apple yet, so it is a case of using your imagination to some extent.
What is known is that Apple filed a patent with the US 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.
However, Apple is now planning a less-ambitious design that will include a steering wheel and pedals and only support full autonomous capabilities on motorways, according to Bloomberg.
The company plans to develop a vehicle that lets drivers conduct other tasks on a motorway and be alerted with ample time to switch over to manual control, the report said.
Apple has reportedly hired long-time executive of Lamborghini Luigi Taraborrelli. He has been brought in to lead the design, Bloomberg reported, sources said.
He has been part of the Italian luxury sports car maker since 2001 and stepped down from his role as the head of research and development for chassis and vehicle dynamics in May, his LinkedIn profile says.
Apple's car project is currently being led by Kevin Lynch, who is also responsible for the Apple Watch and health software teams, and John Giannandrea, Apple's head of machine learning.
Apple has some serious brand power
An annual study from Strategic Vision, which polled 200,000 new vehicle owners, found that 26 per cent said they would “definitely consider” buying an Apple car, placing it behind only Toyota and Honda.
Twenty-four per cent ticked the top box (“I love it”) when asked their impression of the quality of the brand, beating all others by a wide margin.
Meanwhile, more than 50 per cent of Tesla owners said they would definitely consider a future Apple vehicle. “Everyone should be prepared,” Strategic Vision president Alexander Edwards said.
Where are we with self-driving cars?
Apple has had a fleet of 69 Lexus SUVs experimenting with its technology, California's Department of Motor Vehicles reports.
Although, as Tesla has found out, safety is a major hurdle to overcome.
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 have ever been involved in, I have never really seen more false dawns, where it seems that we are going to break through, but we don't, as I have 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 self-driving cars are estimated to be in use in the US.
This 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.
— This article was first published on May 20, 2022