It doesn't quite have the shock appeal of the Pope's unannounced TED Talk this week, but a few hours ago, a passerby in California saw a white Lexus fitted out with self-driving equipment emerge from an Apple facility in Silicon Valley and shared those images with Bloomberg. It's only been about two weeks since Apple received a permit to test self-driving cars.

Apple built its success on the practice of creating both hardware and software, while competitors such as Google and Microsoft (mostly) create software to be used in other companies' hardware. Each approach has its benefits, with Apple's control over both elements allowing for better design and user interface, while the software-only approach allows for more flexibility, a wider range of customers, and more affordable products.

But cars are very different from smartphones. Although Apple started out with a plan to build its own cars, Bloomberg reported last fall that the company was scaling back those ambitions and planning to create a software platform that could be used with existing vehicles, and had laid off or reassigned hundreds of engineers in the process. That decision certainly is allowing Apple to get its autonomous cars on the road more quickly. With Tesla, Alphabet's Waymo, and Uber already big players in this arena, getting its product to market sooner than later might be important for Apple.

Apple is so far making no public announcements about its secretive "Project Titan," as its autonomous driving initiative is apparently known internally. But experts have noted that, at least as far as the test is concerned, Apple's autonomous car seems to be built from off-the-shelf parts, including a lidar (light detection and ranging) unit from Velodyne Lidar, at least two radar units and several cameras. Velodyne is a high-end brand, in keeping with Apple's high-quality approach to its technology. At the same time, if Apple really intends to use off-the-shelf products for autonomous driving, that will help it bring its self-driving car to market faster and may also help it work more smoothly with the existing carmakers who will use its self-driving platform.

Apple's entry into this market should be well-received, especially considering the deep love and trust many Apple users have for the company's products. It's interesting to note that, so far, the major companies testing self-driving cars have all seen their vehicles involved in accidents. A self-driving Uber was caught on video running a red light, a Google self-driving car collided with a bus, and of course a Tesla failed to "see" a truck that was blocking the road and wound up killing its owner.

Will Apple, with its famous attention to detail, be able to avoid mishaps like these? And if it can't, will that harm its reputation for high-design, infallible products? It will be fascinating to find out.

Published on: Apr 27, 2017
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