Apple and Its Rivals Have Spent $16 Billion on Self-Driving Cars

Apple Car Concept Drawing Credit: Flickr / iphonedigital / CC BY-SA 2.0
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Since going through some fairly significant restructuring last year, news about Apple’s secretive “Project Titan” autonomous car initiative has gotten much quieter, but that doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t still actively working on the project, and more likely now that the company has shuffled the deck a bit and built its new dream team, it’s simply rolled up its sleeves and gotten down to actually working on the project.

After all, with Apple’s penchant for extreme secrecy, very little actually leaks out of the company’s more futuristic projects except when it’s busy hiring and firing senior staff members or acquiring smaller companies to bolster its initiatives. Unlike actual products that are under development, there are no supply chains to leak out information on Apple’s secretive R&D projects, since there’s nothing to actually be manufactured yet.

A deep dive from The Information, however, offers us a closer look as to what Apple may be up to as part of the overall industry’s efforts to create a truly autonomous self-driving car. The report estimates that the companies working on the technology, including Apple, have collectively burned through $16 billion in research and development costs, and yet they’re still really nowhere near a truly autonomous vehicle solution.

A group of 30 companies has spent at least $16 billion on developing fully self-driving cars over the past few years—and so far they have little, if any, revenue to show for it. But billions more will likely be needed before the technology is ready for primetime.

The report outlines the estimated spending by the top 11 companies working on self-driving vehicles, which is topped out by Alphabet’s Waymo, GM’s Cruise, and Uber, which The Information estimates have spent about half of the money being invested in developing the new technologies, while Apple, Baidu, Ford, and Toyota account for “most of the rest,” collectively adding up to about 85% of the overall spending on self-driving research.

Of all of these, however, The Information goes on to note that only Alphabet, Apple, and Toyota have the kind of “immensely deep pockets” that would allow them to stay the course on developing a technology that likely still has a long way to go before it’s anywhere near ready to hit the roads.

The lion’s share of the costs for all of this seems to be coming from engineer’s salaries and prototype road testing, as well as collecting map data and paying salaries to the operations workers that are needed to monitor road testing of the prototypes. Each prototype vehicle is also estimated to cost between $250,000 and $500,000 each in order to outfit it with the automated driving test hardware. According to the report, Cruise has around 200 test vehicles, while Waymo is running as many as 600.

Self-Driving Fleets

There’s no word on how many vehicles Apple currently has in its own fleet, although reports from two years ago suggested the number was around 55, although at the time this was also estimated to have exceeded Waymo’s 51 vehicles — a number which has increased significantly since that time.

It’s hard to say whether Apple’s fleet has kept up, but it’s clear that Alphabet has moved ahead more quickly with its Waymo subsidiary, with human-monitored self-driving cars already rolling through the streets of a suburb in Phoenix, Arizona, where it recently said it serves more than 1,500 riders per month in retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans, who pay fares similar to what a normal Uber ride would cost. Most of these vehicles have a worker sitting on standby behind the wheel ready to take over if a problem occurs, while even the handful of “driverless” rides, which are limited to a much smaller section of the Phoenix suburbs and have no human operator on board, are still actively monitored by a “remote assist dispatcher” and followed by a “chase van,” both of which undoubtedly make the entire operation much more costly.

Of course, Waymo has been doing this for far longer than Apple has, and according to what The Information estimates, has also spent more than three times as much on self-driving car projects, to the tune of $3.5 billion. Further, Alphabet follows the same corporate culture of its multibillion-dollar subsidiary Google, which isn’t afraid to risk showing off its R&D efforts on the public stage.

What’s Apple up to?

By contrast, Apple’s public failures are extremely rare, and in fact with very few exceptions are almost unheard of in modern times, due to the company’s penchant for secrecy and not even talking about its products until they’re ready for market.

As The Information points out, this makes it difficult for anybody to truly figure out what Apple is up to, especially since the company has seemingly changed directions on the Apple Car projects numerous times, struggling early on and giving up on its ambitions to build an actual car and moving more over into the software development side instead.

Just when that seemed to be all there was to write for the Apple Car story, however, Project Titan rose from the ashes two years ago, with analysts predicting the launch of an actual vehicle between 2023 and 2025, which was further bolstered by some significant automotive industry hires early last year.

Despite this, however, Apple has scaled back on its personnel, with The Information estimating that the original team of 1,400 engineers has now been reduced to about 600, many of whom came from, although that could simply mean that Apple is running a leaner and meaner team now, especially as it’s moved beyond the very early “spitballing” R&D stages.

One interesting tidbit that The Information shared is that Apple engineers held a secret demonstration for senior executives to show that its vehicles could handle a several-mile loop without any problems, according to a “person with direct knowledge of the demo.” Although the source declined to say where the test was held, Apple is believed to have a Project Titan test facility in the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Arizona.

One company that The Information fails to include in its report is Tesla, since despite its efforts in creating intelligent “autopilot” systems, it’s not really considered a contender in the self-driving car space, since owners will still be responsible for the safety of the vehicle, and even limited features like smart summon still require the owner to have line of sight, and it doesn’t seem like Tesla plans to change this behaviour.

So far, Apple’s plans seem to be considerably more ambitious than this, but it will be interesting to see if the company continues to move full-steam ahead exclusively toward a self-driving car, or if it stops along the way to release a semi-autonomous solution like Tesla’s for which the bar is considerably lower. As visionary as Apple can be, it’s also a company known for its pragmatism, and the billions of dollars that still need to be spent, not to mention the regulatory approvals that will still be required to get self-driving cars on the roads make even a 2025 launch of a truly autonomous Apple Car seem like a challenge that may be too ambitious even for a company with Apple’s resources.

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