Apple, Google, and Autonomous Driving: Way Mo' to This Than Meets the Eye?

Cherise Threewitt
by Cherise Threewitt

Earlier this month, Apple and Google both announced plans to kill off their self-driving car projects in favor of focusing on developing the underlying technology. We reported it here. But it’s a little weird that one announcement came so close on the heels of the other. Apple’s Project Titan, formerly a self-driving car project, will presumably continue to compete with Google’s Waymo, which is a subsidiary for Google’s efforts thus far in the field. It’s a race, even if neither company has acknowledged it as such.

Last we knew, Project Titan was testing self-driving Lexus RX450h SUVs around Silicon Valley, which were first spotted in late April. Waymo was arguably more successful, since they’d actually succeeded in building a fleet of the Firefly self-driving car pod.

Apple and Google are both being vague about this change in plans, as usual, but we already know a fair amount about how these companies interact with auto manufacturers. We just need to look at Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Some automakers eschew these systems entirely, in favor of their own native smartphone integration and infotainment interfaces. A handful of manufacturers have chosen to support just one or the other.

Many car brands, though, have decided to offer both interfaces to appeal to the most broad range of customers. In this way, Apple and Google both exert considerable influence on automakers based simply on the fact that they sell smartphones.

If Project Titan and Waymo both succeed at becoming functional and user-friendly self-driving car systems, car buyers can expect something similar.Don’t forget that, as Apple and Google (as well as Samsung, Uber, and others) work on autonomous technology, most mainstream automakers are also hard at work developing their own systems. Mercedes has an app that can park a car remotely via smartphone. Range Rover has been working on a similar self-parking system. And lots of automakers, such as GM, Tesla, and Volvo, have come up with suites of features that work together to provide the experience of a semi-autonomous car, with varying degrees of success, setbacks, and self-drivability.

In fact, Business Insider suggests Apple is too late to catch up, in part because Apple CarPlay is Apple’s only significant influence on the transportation industry. If both companies, and Apple in particular, fall so far behind the curve, why bother? Forbes suggests they’re after the data that could be collected, analyzed, and used for research and marketing purposes.

Assume for a moment that Apple and Google win, neither forces the other into submission, and both have a shot at working with automakers to get their tech into cars. It’s possible (but probably not likely) that automakers may abandon their investments and decide to collaborate instead, much like they’ve overwhelmingly done with smartphone integration. (It wouldn’t be a total loss, of course; the cameras, sensors, hardware, and general car-building expertise would still be needed, just like cars need infotainment systems to run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.)

This is a big leap, perhaps, but it raises interesting possibilities. We can hypothesize that if these tech companies have their way, this tech won’t be “included” with cars, and that’s because they want data. They want to sell their hand-held devices and use them to gather information about us. They want us to carry our phones everywhere — more than we already even do — and use them to drive our cars.

In May, Uber filed a patent for a mobile device that allows a user to control the non-driving functions of a self-driving car. That falls a little short of Apple and Google’s presumed aspirations, but that’s fine for now. Uber’s up front about the company’s plans to eventually have an autonomous fleet, but Uber doesn’t develop mobile platforms or sell devices, so this is just further evidence to support this line of speculation.

If autonomous technology does indeed shift in this direction — a smartphone provides the backbone the car needs to start, stop, navigate, and park on its own— it’ll mean interesting things for the Android/iPhone war that’s been going on since the iPhone was introduced ten years ago and the first Android rolled out a year later.

If Apple and Google gain control of autonomous driving and use smartphones as a means to do it, the brand of your phone could become a much more significant decision. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the automakers to decide whether they want to fall in line or go it alone, just like they did with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Would you be willing (or forced) to buy a brand of smartphone that can integrate with and drive the brand of car you own? If that’s the case, we could someday see the iPhone/Android battle drive car sales, as consumers choose car brands based on compatibility with their preferred device.

This change in plans certainly suggests that there’s something else going on. That there’s more to be gained by developing proprietary technology that bonds with another data-generating product — your car — than building and selling the car itself. These announcements seemed to take industry experts by surprise, yet they’re much more in line with what we should expect from both companies.

Cherise Threewitt
Cherise Threewitt

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  • Fishiftstick Fishiftstick on Jun 26, 2017

    If you want to earn money, you have to create value. Today high value is in design and technology, not manufacturing. Apple and Google both have the resources to start their own car plants. Heck, either could buy GM or Ford if it wanted in on the business of turning steel into cars. They don't, because they are smart enough to understand that's not where the money is. Maybe their CEOs should consider running for president.

  • Sector 5 Sector 5 on Jun 26, 2017

    Suppose Apple & Google are dodging the ICE melt? While companies like Tesla can sweat out EV. Parking app? I thought that was the great autonomous evil. A private car spending 90% of life parked, clogging streets. While an autonomous fleet constantly on the move would alleviate that issue.

  • Dave M. IMO this was the last of the solidly built MBs. Yes, they had the environmentally friendly disintegrating wiring harness, but besides that the mechanicals are pretty solid. I just bought my "forever" car (last new daily driver that'll ease me into retirement), but a 2015-16 E Class sedan is on my bucket list for future purchase. Beautiful design....
  • Rochester After years of self-driving being in the news, I still don't understand the psychology behind it. Not only don't I want this, but I find the idea absurd.
  • Douglas This timeframe of Mercedes has the self-disintegrating engine wiring harness. Not just the W124, but all of them from the early 90's. Only way to properly fix it is to replace it, which I understand to be difficult to find a new one/do it/pay for. Maybe others have actual experience with doing so and can give better hope. On top of that, it's a NH car with "a little bit of rust", which means to about anyone else in the USA it is probably the rustiest W124 they have ever seen. This is probably a $3000 car on a good day.
  • Formula m How many Hyundai and Kia’s do not have the original engine block it left the factory with 10yrs prior?
  • 1995 SC I will say that year 29 has been a little spendy on my car (Motor Mounts, Injectors and a Supercharger Service since it had to come off for the injectors, ABS Pump and the tool to cycle the valves to bleed the system, Front Calipers, rear pinion seal, transmission service with a new pan that has a drain, a gaggle of capacitors to fix the ride control module and a replacement amplifier for the stereo. Still needs an exhaust manifold gasket. The front end got serviced in year 28. On the plus side blank cassettes are increasingly easy to find so I have a solid collection of 90 minute playlists.