The iPhone of cars? Ap­ple en­ters self-driv­ing race

Com­pany ends years of spec­u­la­tion, joins crowded field

The Commercial Appeal - - Busi­ness - MICHAEL LIEDTKE Deep pock­ets

SAN FRAN­CISCO - Ap­ple is join­ing the fiercely com­pet­i­tive race to de­sign self-driv­ing cars, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that a com­pany that has al­ready re­shaped cul­ture with its iPhone may try to trans­form trans­porta­tion, too.

End­ing years of spec­u­la­tion, Ap­ple’s late en­try into a crowded field was made of­fi­cial Fri­day with the dis­clo­sure that the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles had awarded a per­mit for the com­pany to start test­ing its self-driv­ing car tech­nol­ogy on pub­lic roads in the state.

The per­mit cov­ers three ve­hi­cles — all 2015 Lexus RX 450h hy­brid SUVs — and six in­di­vid­ual driv­ers. Cal­i­for­nia law re­quires peo­ple to be in a self-driv­ing car who can take con­trol if some­thing goes wrong.

Mo­bile in a new way

Ap­ple con­firmed its ar­rival in the self-driv­ing car mar­ket, but wouldn’t dis­cuss its in­ten­tions. Its in­ter­est in au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy, how­ever, has long been clear.

The Cu­per­tino, Cal­i­for­nia, com­pany pointed to a state­ment that it is­sued in De­cem­ber. “Ap­ple is in­vest­ing heav­ily in ma­chine learn­ing and au­ton­o­mous sys­tems,” the com­pany said then. “There are many po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions for these tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing the fu­ture of trans­porta­tion.”

Ap­ple re­leased that state­ment after Steve Ken­ner, a for­mer Ford Mo­tor ex­ec­u­tive who is now Ap­ple’s di­rec­tor of prod­uct in­tegrity, no­ti­fied fed­eral reg­u­la­tors of the com­pany’s in­ter­est in self­driv­ing cars in a let­ter.

Like oth­ers, Ap­ple be­lieves self-driv­ing cars could ease con­ges­tion, pre­vent mil­lions of crashes and save thou­sands of lives an­nu­ally in traf­fic ac­ci­dents of­ten caused by drunk or dis­tracted mo­torists.

Self-driv­ing cars could also be a lu­cra­tive new mar­ket. And Ap­ple has been search­ing for its next act for a while, one that will take it be­yond its main­stay phones, tablets and per­sonal com­put­ers.

A next big thing

Although iPhone’s on­go­ing pop­u­lar­ity has helped Ap­ple re­main the world’s most valu­able com­pany, the com­pany hasn’t had a break­through prod­uct since the 2010 de­but of the iPad, cur­rently in the throes of a three-year sales slump. The dry spell has raised doubts as to whether Ap­ple lost some of its trend-set­ting magic with the death of co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011.

Ap­ple will be vy­ing against 29 other com­pa­nies that al­ready have Cal­i­for­nia per­mits to test self-driv­ing cars. The list con­sists of ma­jor au­tomak­ers, in­clud­ing Ford, Gen­eral Mo­tors, BMW, Volk­swa­gen and Tesla, as well as one of its big­gest ri­vals in tech­nol­ogy, Google, whose test­ing of self-driv­ing cars has been spun off into an af­fil­i­ate called Waymo.

Since Google be­gan its work on self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles eight years ago, Waymo’s fleet of self-driv­ing cars has logged more than 2 mil­lion miles.

That means Ap­ple has a long way to catch up in self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy. But it has of­ten been a fol­lower in mar­kets that it even­tu­ally rev­o­lu­tion­ized. It wasn’t the first to in­tro­duce a dig­i­tal mu­sic player, smart­phone, or tablet be­fore its iPod, iPhone and iPad came out.

With $246 bil­lion in cash, Ap­ple also could eas­ily af­ford to buy tech­nol­ogy that ac­cel­er­ates its de­vel­op­ment of self­driv­ing cars. There has been re­cur­ring spec­u­la­tion that Ap­ple might even­tu­ally ac­quire Tesla, which has a mar­ket value of about $50 bil­lion. Nei­ther Ap­ple nor Tesla has given any inkling that they’re in­ter­ested in join­ing forces, though.

Spec­u­la­tion about Ap­ple’s in­ter­est in ex­pand­ing into au­to­mo­biles be­gan swirling in 2015 amid me­dia re­ports that the com­pany had be­gun se­cretly work­ing on build­ing its own elec­tric car un­der the name project “Ti­tan.” Ap­ple never con­firmed the ex­is­tence of Ti­tan, which is now be­lieved to be dead.

TONY GUTIER­REZ/AP

Ap­ple, with its logo dis­played above a store en­trance in Dal­las, will be­gin test­ing self-driv­ing car tech­nol­ogy in Cal­i­for­nia, its first pub­lic move into a highly com­pet­i­tive field that could rad­i­cally change trans­porta­tion.

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