Early in February, rumor had it that Apple is once again eyeing the smart car market, both electric and self-driving. Improved batteries and new environment regulations might make smart cars a promising new business area. According to USA Today, the “iCar” is certain to be an electric vehicle costing over $40,000. The self-driving part is more of a challenge:
But a self-driving car could introduce a “longer timeframe” in part due to Apple CEO Tim Cook’s cautious approach to unveiling new products, Ives said. Automakers and tech companies have yet to solve the thorniest challenges associated with autonomous driving.Nathan Bomey, “Is Apple making an electric, self-driving car? If it does, here are 5 things you could see” at USA Today (February 6, 2021)
Those “thorniest challenges” could prove a bigger problem than Tim Cook’s cautious approach does. As Jonathan Bartlett, who works in the area, writes here at Mind Matters News, Daimler, Waymo, and GM have made big gains in Level 4 self-driving (ahead of Apple). But that’s Level 4—preplanned, mapped routes and fully mapped parking garages.
About Level 5 (fully self-driving), Bartlett (pictured) is less optimistic: “The transition from Level 4 to Level 5 is not a straight linear transition. It is orders of magnitude more difficult that the other level transitions and may prove impossible in practice. Over the years, I have been arguing that the smart money is on the companies who aim for solid Level 4 automation. Such automation focuses on the engineering task of providing an automated service rather than attempting to fulfill a dream of computers acting like humans.” (Mind Matters News, November 2, 2020)
Apple could end up as a newbie competing with the old pros than a new tech colossus taking the world by storm. Now that’s reason for caution.
Meanwhile, in China — already 47% of the world’s electric car market — giant carmaker Geely (which owns Volvo and has a stake in Daimler) is partnering with AI giant Baidu to make “smart electric cars.” But these firms are hardly alone:
Internet giants including Tencent, Amazon and Alphabet have all developed auto-related technology or invested in smart-car startups in recent years.
China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has formed an EV joint venture with Geely’s competitor SAIC.
Chinese ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing has partnered with automaker BYD to make electric vehicles specifically designed for ride hailing services.Business, “China’s Baidu and Geely partner up for smart cars” at BBC News (January 11, 2021)
Britain plans a ban on the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2030, so the British market is watching these developments with interest.
Not everyone thinks that smart electric cars are a simple answer, however:
EVs are more expensive than normal cars and sales are still relatively low. China’s electric-car market, one of the major growth engines, is struggling as the government has phased down buyer subsidies and the lockdown has depressed short-term demand. India, where incentives have improved, is unlikely to be able to pick up the slack…
As EV valuations boom, investors may look further down the supply chain market, refocusing from EVs to cashing in on batteries as a less exploited opportunity in the EV supply chain.Marianne Lehnis, “Electric Vehicle Stocks Are Hot, But Will Investors Refocus Attention On Batteries?” at Forbes (January 11, 2021)
Indeed. Electric cars are only as good as their batteries and batteries might end up as the hotter and more profitable market.
Some go further and just want to end the “addiction” to the private automobile altogether. At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo writes,
In this way E.V.s represent a very American answer to climate change: To deal with an expensive, dangerous, extremely resource-intensive machine that has helped bring about the destruction of the planet, let’s all buy this new version, which runs on a different fuel.
And what do we do about gas-powered cars? You may have seen that bizarre G.M. Super Bowl ad in which Will Ferrell and his celebrity pals invade Norway because it has been wildly successful at selling electric vehicles. What the ad doesn’t mention is the reason so many Norwegians are buying E.V.s: The country has imposed steep taxes on gas-powered cars, accelerating the transformation to a cleaner future. Should we follow its lead? …
Can we fix these issues with more advanced tech? Perhaps, someday. But we’d make better progress if we identified the correct problem: not gas, but cars.Farhad Manjoo, “There’s One Big Problem With Electric Cars” at New York Times (February 18, 2021)
Many Americans might have trouble embracing a future of walking, bicycles, and public transportation in autonomous vehicles. But many environmentalists see that as the goal, with private smart cars as a sort of byway, joining the main road later. We can expect fierce political clashes as governments try to institute new policies.
You may also wish to read: #8 Smash Hits in AI: Big gains in practical self-driving cars. The people who have been pursuing Level Five self-driving are nowhere but Level Four is working well. (January 9, 2021)