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So what if Apple's tinkering with cars

Rick Newman
Columnist

Imagine IBM announced plans to sell a smartphone, or FedEx launched an online shopping site. Wall Street analysts would duly note that the company faced grueling competition from entrenched competitors, and very long odds. Most people would shrug.

Yet when Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook confirmed recently that the tech titan was working on self-driving cars, dozens of stories filled the Internet with hope that a beloved consumer-products company would finally rescue the world’s drivers from the torment imposed on them by existing automakers. Headlines touted Cook’s observation that the technology is “incredibly exciting” and “the mother of all AI projects.”

You’d barely know, but on the same day Cook confirmed that Apple is doing some lab work on self-driving cars, General Motors (GM) announced it had finished production of 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts. These aren’t add-on kits or bits of technology for other automakers to use. They’re road-ready cars designed from the ground up to accommodate autonomous technology, built on the same Michigan assembly line that churns out the regular Bolt, an all-electric hatchback that will be on sale in every state by the fall.

This must be some ancient, industrial-age technology that’s way behind whatever is going on in Silicon Valley, right? Actually no. It’s a cutting-edge system that will be similar to the “supercruise” feature GM’s Cadillac division will begin offering this fall, allowing vehicles to essentially drive themselves on a highway. Tesla’s autonomous “autopilot” system has been available since 2016, but GM has been more cautious about safety implications, rolling its self-driving features out more slowly. Most other big automakers have similar technology in the works, with self-driving features such as autonomous emergency braking and radar cruise control already available on brands in many showrooms.

Old-line automakers also have better ways to test new technology than whatever Apple has behind its velvet curtain. GM’s partnership with ride-hailing service Lyft will allow it to test self-driving cars in real-world settings, much as Uber is doing in Pittsburgh (except Uber has no in-house automotive expertise). Toyota has been working on self-driving cars since at least 2005, and has its own fleet of self-driving Priuses. When Motor Trend compared four self-driving systems last year, there was no Apple (or Alphabet) car to test, so it had to settle for a Tesla, Hyundai, Mercedes and Cadillac.

We all know the case for Apple: It doesn’t invent technology as much as it reinvents what others start but fail to advance. That’s where the iPod and iPhone came from. But every product in the world isn’t a flip phone waiting to be disrupted. Some cars contain 100 million lines of computer code, far more than a typical smartphone. Plus, cars have to operate in all weather conditions, at normal speeds over 70 miles per hour, amid potholes and other hazards, while lasting for 10 or 20 years. The reason a typical car costs $30,000 is it takes many forms of expertise to build something durable that can do what a car does.

Could Apple improve on some elements of the modern car? Sure. What many people don’t realize is that key automotive innovations often come from suppliers rather than the big automakers, which is why all the car companies adopt new features at more or less the same rate. Apple is already a small supplier to the auto industry, via the CarPlay app some cars feature as part of the entertainment system, allowing the vehicle to sync with an iPhone. That’s a start, but tech firms such as Panasonic, Alpine Electronics and Nvidia (NVDA) are already way ahead of Apple as an automotive supplier.

Apple wants to be much more than a routine supplier, of course, and it hopes the proprietary development of artificial intelligence and other advanced systems will help it snag a sizable chunk of a giant global industry that yields more than $2 trillion in annual revenue. Automakers are well aware of the competitive threat, however, and each considers the hardware-software interface of its vehicles to be a core competency they will not relinquish to others. Former Ford CEO Mark Fields said frequently that Ford was not about to become a handset manufacturer, meaning it was not going to simply build a box featuring technology provided by others. And Ford fired Fields in May for not being aggressive enough regarding the adoption of new technology.

So Apple may have a future in the automotive business, but it will probably involve cars built by Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and every other brand you’ve known for a long time. A car isn’t a smartphone, and century-old automakers aren’t as clueless as they seem.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman