Apple might be about to show its hand on its car project

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While the automotive and technology worlds have been pouring billions into autonomous vehicles (AVs) and preparing to bring them to market soon as shared robo-taxis, has mostly sat on the sidelines. Of course, is the last company to ever make its intentions known, and the super-secret tech cult giant hasn’t been totally out of the AV game based on the clues that have slipped out of its Cupertino, Calif., citadel over the past few years.

News first broke in 2015 that it had assembled an automotive development team, in part by poaching high-profile talent from car companies, to work on a top-secret self-driving vehicle code-named Titan. (Thank you very much, Nissan.) Apple also subsequently broke cover by making inquiries into using a Northern California AV testing facility and receiving a permit to test AVs on public roads in California.

But then as the AV race started to heat up in the last few years, Apple reportedly began scaling back its activities by downsizing team Titan. More recently, Apple’s car project has shown signs of life with the hiring a high-level engineer away from Waymo and luring one Tesla’s top engineers and a former employee back to Apple. It also inked a deal with Volkswagen to provide a technology platform and software to convert the automaker’s new T6 Transporter vans into autonomous shuttles for employees at tech company’s new campus.

That is a far cry from giving rides to Wal-Mart shoppers, like Waymo is doing as part of its AV testing in Phoenix. But this could be the perfect time for Apple to enter the AV market now that ride-sharing is reaching critical mass and automakers and others are planning to deploy fleets of robo-taxis.

Apple could easily establish a niche as a high-end ride-sharing service – and charge a premium – given its cult-like brand loyalty and design savvy. The growth of car subscription models could also play in Apple’s favor since is already has many people hooked on paying for phones in monthly installments – and eager to upgrade when a new and better model becomes available.

To achieve this, some believe Apple will fulfill co-founder and CEO Steve Job’s dream of building a car. And as the world’s first and only $1 trillion company it’s sitting on a mountain of cash that certainly gives it the means.

But other tech darlings like Tesla and Google have discovered how difficult it can be to build cars at scale. That’s partly why Waymo, after toying with manufacturing its own Firefly autonomous vehicle, purchased more than 60,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans for its Phoenix-based Early Rider Program and has an additional 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace luxury EV crossovers on order, while Uber has scooped up 24,000 Volvo XC90s for its AV program.

But this also means Apple will have to reach beyond its traditional walled garden – and may have already. Back in 2015, CEO Tim Cook made a trip to Munich to meet with BMW brass, and Apple executives went to Leipzig to witness firsthand BWM’s production techniques for its i3 electric car.

Of course, no one outside of Apple likely knows exactly what the tech behemoth’s automotive plans are.
But we do know several things about the company’s M.O. over the years and how it has disrupted and dominated markets it’s entered through its tech innovation and marketing magic.

It often moves into markets in which emerging technology hasn’t quite found its footing beyond early adopters and enterprise applications. For example, it introduced the iPod and the Apple Music Store at a time when MP3 players were clumsy and there was no digital music sales infrastructure, and the iPhone buried BlackBerry by making smartphones a ubiquitous consumer device rather than something only business people needed.

With the mobility market still in its infancy and automakers and others trying to figure out how to monetize new ways to move people and good, it could be an ideal moment for Apple to enter automotive — if not build cars. Maybe we’ll find out at Apple’s traditional early September product unveiling whether the company’s automotive plans will be revealed as “one more thing” that it irrevocably changes.

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