It’s easy to picture Apple as hopelessly behind in developing the technology required for automated vehicles, as CEO Tim Cook finally confirmed this week that the company is doing.
It’s true that the company only recently received a permit for testing self-driving cars in California, and that a host of other firms have been out on the road for years now. But for some time Apple has been quietly hiring some impressive robotics and AI talent for its project.
Much more importantly, fully autonomous driving may have less to do with mapping thousands of miles of road in high resolution—something that’s important for helping cars navigate—than developing smarter autonomous systems that can deal with unforeseen circumstances in clever ways.
In this sense, Cook was right when he said recently that autonomous driving is the “mother of all AI projects.” It’s possible, in fact, that full autonomy is an “AI-complete problem,” meaning it requires human-level intelligence to do properly. That doesn’t mean that less sophisticated systems won’t save countless lives, but it suggests there’s a long way to go yet, as we’ve pointed out before.
Apple may, then, be able to develop cutting-edge automated driving technology, although it will need to keep investing in artificial intelligence and robotics research. If the company has even distant aspirations to develop its own robots, whether for its factories or for the home, then this would be a wise investment indeed.
Beyond autonomy, there are other good reasons to believe Apple can be successful in cars. Modern vehicles are becoming increasingly computerized and connected, and this trend is starting to change the way cars are repaired, serviced, and modified.
Apple already has a foot in many cars today, through its CarPlay system, which brings an iOS interface to the dashboard. While this is just a start, it’s clear that the company has been thinking about the opportunities afforded by the computerization of driving.
The company also, of course, has unparalleled experience in combining hardware and software to make very usable interfaces. So it could yet have a say in developing the automobile operating system of the future, including whatever autonomy that may bring.