There has been quite a lot of chatter in recent months about the possibility of Apple jumping into the promising electric car market. Among other significant events, the Silicon Valley tech giant has reportedly poached engineers from Tesla and engaged hundreds of its workers on its secretive electric car initiative: Project Titan.
The latest news development is that this week The Wall Street Journal reported – going on information from an anonymous source “familiar with the matter” – that Apple has now labeled Project Titan a “committed project” after a year of work researching the possibilities. The company is reportedly planning to triple the number of people working on the project to 1,800. Tesla has more than 12,000 employees, but considering Apple does not have any product yet, that’s a substantial commitment.
WSJ’s source indicated that Apple is planning an electric car to begin with, but not an autonomous (self-driving) electric car, and that it’s aiming at 2019 for a first product release. Given that Tesla is already starting to deliver some automated features, and Google has been testing fully-automated cars on US roads for quite some time, it does not seem out of line to speculate that the first model Apple ships will be at least semi-automated. Four years is a long time in technology years in the 21st century.
In terms of funding the capital intensive enterprise, there is obviously no problem there. It’s public knowledge that Apple by itself has around $200 billion, yes billion, in cash to reinvest. By 2019, no doubt Apple will have quite a lot more competition than today, but it’s hard to see how the big incumbents are going to keep up with the likes of Apple and Google when it come to an autonomous electric vehicle market, unless they partner up and become more open to electric cars. Although it hasn’t made a car before, Apple in particular has a great deal of experience and expertise in the areas of lithium-ion batteries, sensors, and hardware-software integration, which will all be very important as the electric car market develops.
Moreover, if the automotive market develops into a convergence of electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and also shared transportation services (such as Uber and Lyft), which seems likely to me, Apple and other Silicon Valley tech companies will be well placed to take advantage of that. The big automotive incumbents won’t be able to keep pace with the exponential technology advances these tech companies live and breathe.
Included in that convergence will be renewable energy, and solar power in particular – another exponentially growing technology. Solar power will go hand in hand with electric, autonomous cars and their energy storage capacity. The big car companies may well be left in the dust if they don’t get with the electric car program soon. This week’s emissions cheating scandal involving VW is the latest sign that all is not well inside big, old car companies struggling to navigate the transition to a high-tech, low emissions future.