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There’s no reason to get excited about Apple’s interest in self-driving cars

Updated Jun 13th, 2017 3:04PM EDT
Apple Car
Image: Apple

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In something of an unusual move, Apple CEO Tim Cook sat down with Bloomberg today and revealed that Apple is actively developing self-driving car technologies. In response to a question about Apple’s car ambitions, Cook stopped playing coy and flatly stated: “We’re focusing on autonomous systems. It’s a core technology that we view as very important. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects.”

Cook’s revelation here is incredibly surprising because it’s completely out of character for Apple executives to divulge even a crumb of information about R&D initiatives. Indeed, one of Apple’s defining traits is its stubborn reluctance to confirm or deny any type of new technology they happen to be working on.

So what exactly is going on here? Why is Tim Cook seemingly taking Apple’s tried and true playbook and throwing it out the window? Is it possible Cook wants to generate some excitement in the wake of Apple shares taking a dramatic tumble this week? Or, perhaps, is this Cook’s way of assuring skeptical analysts that Apple won’t miss the next big thing?

Cook’s motivations notwithstanding, you might want to temper any expectations of Apple turning the automotive industry on its head. While Apple has a history of entering new product categories and making a splash, it’s only been able to do that when entering a product category filled to the brim with unimaginative and lazy incumbents. The auto industry today, however, is a far cry from the MP3 player and smartphone markets Apple was able to upend with ease many years ago. The reality is that the auto industry has a number of sophisticated players with long track records of incredible innovation, from BMW and Porsche to Tesla.

What’s more, it’s not exactly clear where Apple is going to profit from self-driving technology in the first place. Is Apple going to sell its software solution to third-party automakers? That seems like a non-starter given that most of the luxury car makers are intent on going it alone. And as for Apple releasing its own branded car, well, that’s even more unlikely for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it would require an absolutely mammoth outlay of cash for small profits relative to Apple’s size.

All that aside, there’s no evidence at the moment to suggest that Apple’s mythical self-driving car technology will be so great as to render competing systems second-rate. Far from it, the language Cook used when describing Apple’s work in the area is eerily reminiscent of what Cook previously said about the Apple TV.

“We’ll see where it takes us,” Cook said of the company’s efforts. “We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.”

Until Apple has something compelling to show off, there’s no reason to get excited about the fact that Apple is throwing R&D resources at a problem that other companies take much more seriously than Apple, namely Tesla.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.