Apple looks to be on the market for electric cars

autonomous car

Since Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the iPhone-maker was indeed developing autonomous car technology, a number of stories have emerged which may be part of what Cook called “the mother of all AI projects”. 

While the details of its advances in artificial intelligence for self-driving cars is not known, Apple’s contacts and deals with other companies possibly related to the project is being well documented.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Apple had entered a partnership with car hire company Hertz to use its cars to test its AI-driven autonomous car systems.

The small fleet of about half a dozen Lexus sports utility vehicles were reportedly hired, and at least some of them will be equipped with Apple’s self-driving tech.

Apple has already acquired permission from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test three self-driving vehicles.

The idea of a hire car being able to drive itself to your location and then drive itself back again is appealing enough even if you would prefer to drive the car yourself when it’s in your possession.

And perhaps to wind up Apple, Google made a similar deal with Avis, Hertz’s rival in the car hire business.

Google has always been more open about its ambitions in the area of self-driving car technology.

Each company’s approach is different, with Google being more skilled and experienced with devices that connect over the internet – often to its planet-spanning cloud computing infrastructure; while Apple’s paranoia about privacy has prevented it from developing more open networks, with the company preferring to load devices with as much localised computing as possible.

Hence the iPhone being as powerful as it is right from launch 10 years ago.

It’s difficult to say which approach will prove more successful, since autonomous cars require both connectivity and onboard computing power.

But regulators may have the crucial say, and for security reasons alone, they may require the vast majority of the computing to drive the cars be done within the car itself.

Connectivity may only be used for additional map reading, entertainment and other informational needs that are not integral to the actual mechanical movement of the vehicle.

The other reason for this kind of localised processing, or “edge computing” if you prefer, is that no matter how fast the internet, it would clearly never be as fast as not needing an internet connection at all.

Both companies are developing specialised AI chips.

Google has already unveiled its Tensor Processing Unit, which is intended for use at data centres for deep learning applications, but a variation of which may end up in its self-driving cars.

Apple has let it be known that it is developing some sort of Neural Engine chip, but details on that have not been made public. The AI-dedicated processor will initially make its debut in iPhones, but since the two tech giants are determined to mutate cars into smartphones on wheels, there’s not going to be much to modify about the chip by the time Apple launches its car.

And while Google’s self-driving software has been riding around in the company’s bubble car, as well as some Fiat Chrysler vehicles, Apple is yet to attach its self-driving tech to any particular vehicle.

One rumour which developed this week suggests that Apple is quite interested in the Fisker electric car, especially as CEO and founder Henrik Fisker was spotted at Apple’s headquarters on Tuesday.

Henrik Fisker’s competitive advantage includes the fact that he is associated with a number of classic car designs of the modern era, produced by companies such as BMW and Aston Martin.

But given that a lot of auto companies’ CEOs – even those of historic marques – have been trying to woo Apple and Google, it’s difficult to say what will happen.

For now, both companies seem to have decided that, instead of buying any particular car company, they could instead opt for supplying the software to hire companies which offer a variety of different car models on an ongoing basis.

Indeed, this is what even the established auto giants are saying is a key trend in motoring – that younger people may in future be less interested in owning cars and would be just as likely to hire them when required.

Another key trend they point out is that cars are increasingly going to be powered by electric engines rather than petrol-driven combustion engines – that’s the way the market seems to be going.