CEO Cook teases more details on Apple’s car project

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Apple CEO Tim Cook waves goodbye after an event at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/Files

It may be the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley that Apple has been working on something having to do with cars. The issue is, nobody outside of Apple could really say what the project has been about — until now.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has shed more light on his company’s automotive efforts, revealing that the company is “focusing on autonomous systems,” according to an interview with Bloomberg News published Tuesday. In plain English, that means the technology behind self-driving cars.

Apple still won’t say publicly if it intends to sell a car of its own, but Cook’s remarks implied that the company is less interested in building a machine on wheels than developing the software or brains that could power one.

“It’s a core technology that we view as very important,” Cook said. He likened the effort to “the mother of all AI projects,” saying it’s “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”

To see and interpret the world around them, self-driving cars require sophisticated computing and sensing systems. Artificial intelligence, or AI, can help make sense of that data. By analyzing thousands of hours of readings from test drives, companies such as Google and Ford hope that their machines will soon drive more safely and efficiently than humans can.

This raises the possibility that, just as Apple and Google became the dominant companies in mobile operating systems with iOS and Android, the same will be true in the operating systems for self-driving cars.

“Apple appears to be taking the same route as Waymo/Google, which is to focus on the technology of self-driving cars while leaving vehicle production to established automakers,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “This puts Apple and Google in direct competition, again. Are we looking at a future with two major autonomous vehicle systems just as we currently have two major smartphone systems? The answer seems to be ‘yes.'”

The public got an early hint in April that Apple was interested in entering the self-driving car wars, when the company got permission from California regulators to test-drive a handful of modified Lexus SUVs on public roads. But it was less clear then just what aspect of self-driving technology Apple was pursuing. The company declined to comment for this story.

Automotive analysts say that building lots of working cars, and quickly, can be a far more complex endeavor than building a smartphone or laptop. (Tesla’s struggles with meeting production targets offer further evidence of how challenging auto manufacturing can be at scale.) Cars have a lot of moving parts. Large, established players in Detroit enjoy huge economies of scale that can make it harder for a new entrant to get started. And, some say, whereas Apple’s success with the iPhone came at a time when most people didn’t have cellphones, the market for cars is already saturated, raising questions about how much money Apple could really make by selling actual cars.

All that could help explain why Apple, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest companies, appears to be focusing more heavily — for now — on self-driving software.