Apple's Cook finally opens up about driverless car project

After years toiling away on a car project without revealing much, Apple Inc chief executive officer Tim Cook has for the first time elaborated on the company's plans in the automotive market.

''We're focusing on autonomous systems,'' Cook said in a 5 June interview on Bloomberg Television that amounted to his most detailed comments yet on Apple's automotive plans. ''It's a core technology that we view as very important.'' He called it the ''the mother of all AI projects'', saying it's ''probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on''.

"We're focusing on autonomous systems," Cook said. "It's a core technology that we view as very important."

There are rumours that Apple's cars could be shown in public in 2019. Apple received the licence to run self-driving vehicles in California in March this year.

Apple had initially been seeking to build its own car, before recalibrating those ambitions last year to prioritise the underlying technology for autonomous driving, Bloomberg News reports. The iPhone maker had hired more than 1,000 engineers to work on Project Titan, as the car team is known internally, after it started in 2014.

Ballooning costs and headcount led to Apple veteran Bob Mansfield being given the reins of the team in 2016. Cook has never before openly outlined Apple's plans, though public filings have surfaced in recent months that provided snapshots of Apple's efforts.

The iPhone maker secured a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in April to test three self-driving sports-utility vehicles, photos of which emerged several weeks later. A half-dozen vehicles had been surreptitiously testing the autonomous technology on public roads in and around the San Francisco Bay area for at least a year, according to someone familiar with Project Titan. Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr declined to comment on how long the company has been conducting road tests.

In December, Steve Kenner, Apple's director of product integrity, penned a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealing the company's interest in automotive technology. It became public when it was published on a federal website. In the letter, Kenner wrote about the company's excitement surrounding the potential for automated systems in fields like transportation.

''There is a major disruption looming there,'' Cook said on Bloomberg Television, citing self-driving technology, electric vehicles and ride-hailing. ''You've got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.''

Cook was also bullish about the prospects for electric vehicles, a market which last week helped Tesla Inc become the world's fourth-biggest carmaker by market capitalisation, even as it ranks well outside the top 10 by unit sales.

''It's a marvellous experience not to stop at the filling station or the gas station,'' Cook said.

Apple invested $1 billion last year in Didi Chuxing, the biggest Chinese ride-hailing service. The announcement came soon after Mansfield took over Project Titan and set about cutting hundreds of engineers. Whereas Apple had initially been building its own car, Mansfield scrapped those plans in favour of building an autonomous driving system. The company will make a decision on whether to proceed with the push later this year, the people said at the time.

Others in the fray
The prospect of self-driving cars has seen a slew of technology companies push into the auto industry, according to McKinsey & Co. Alphabet Inc's Waymo unit has signed partnerships with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Lyft Inc to develop the technology. And carmakers from BMW AG to General Motors Co have opened sizable Silicon Valley offices and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire autonomous vehicle startups.

Apart from Apple, Ford, Honda, Google, Mercedes-Benz and Tesla are focusing on rolling out self-driving cars.

Google has termed its self-driving car project as Waymo. The US-based firm has been holding the public trials of its self-driving vehicles.

Ford Motor intends to have a fully driverless vehicle on the road within five years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, with sales to consumers coming later.

Honda Motor said the company will launch a self-driving car in three years.

Toyota Motor Corp and Nissan Motor Co have also set 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, as the target date to bring self-driving cars to market.

Tesla's NVIDIA's Drive PX 2-the supercomputer that will Tesla AI cars-has also been revealed in pictures.

Uber started the pilot project for self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh last year but suspended the project after a vehicle equipped with the nascent technology crashed on an Arizona roadway.

The accident is not the first time a self-driving car has been involved in a collision. A driver of a Tesla Motors Inc Model S car operating in autopilot mode was killed in a collision with a truck in Williston, Florida in 2016.

A self-driving vehicle operated by Alphabet Inc's Google was involved in a crash last year in Mountain View, California, striking a bus while attempting to navigate around an obstacle.