The Guardian had a great scoop this week revealing that Apple is actively scouting locations for testing self-driving cars near its Cupertino headquarters. That would strongly suggest the company is moving forward with a rumored plan to make cars — possibly in search of continued growth as its traditional (and ridiculously successful) businesses level out.
While there’s enough evidence in aggregate at this point to say confidently that Apple is working on cars in some substantial capacity, we still don’t have the smoking gun there there’ll be an actual Apple-branded car on the streets that you and I can buy directly from Apple, just as you would a Tesla. There are a number of other possibilities that are still in the running — Apple could want to build a car platform, for instance, just as Google seems to be doing, without making or selling cars itself. Or it could be developing technologies that it can license and sell to existing automakers.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this is the real deal: Apple is indeed going to make an actual Apple Car, debut it at a WWDC-like event, stick it in Apple Stores, and have you drive it home. (Or, perhaps have it drive you home.) In its report, The Guardiansuggests that the project could be “further along than many suspected” because of Apple’s current interest in finding testing facilities.
But I don’t think that’s the case: an earlier Bloomberg report had previously pegged production for somewhere around 2020, and the fact that they’re scouting for locations to test the car in 2015 doesn’t indicate that they’re moving any more quickly than that..
If Apple intends to make its car self-driving in some capacity (as it almost certainly does, especially considering that it’s looking at autonomous car testing sites), it’ll need to start testing systems and components years before it has an actual car ready. Our guess is that they’ll cobble sensors and computers on other cars — as Google did, long before it made cars of its own — and get those honed while another team works on the actual in-house vehicle. Meanwhile, there will be bureaucracies to fight on multiple fronts, both with autonomous driving systems and with getting a production car approved for domestic sale. Apple will need to worry about crash testing, for instance, which is a little more involved than your everyday FCC approval.
For Apple traditionalists who are accustomed to the pace of consumer technology and seeing a new iPhone every year, this is going to look and feel a little different: making a car isn’t much like making a phone, and testing automotive systems in 2015 doesn’t mean there’ll be a car on sale in 2016. So if you’ve got your eye on a new Mustang or Model S, go ahead and pull the trigger. You’ll be ready for a new car by the time this all goes down.