Saturday 22 October 2016

Apple and Google rev up in iCar race

Giant gives Cork the green light

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Auto-pilot: Google’s fleet of self-drive cars have racked up 1.6 million kilometres in trials
Auto-pilot: Google’s fleet of self-drive cars have racked up 1.6 million kilometres in trials

WOULD you drive an iCar? Or, more importantly, would you let the iCar drive you? It's not a philosophical question but rather a recognition of the growing evidence that Apple has set its sights on another industry in need of a revolution and could lead to a self-driving car on sale within years.

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Even more intriguing is the possibility the iCar could be developed - at least partly - at Apple's resurgent plant in Cork, which already employs 4,500 people. A job posting surfaced recently on Apple's website seeking a global procurement manager for Cork with "experience in the automotive industry".

As a clue, it's not much to go on but fits into a bigger picture of where Apple may go next. Of course, Apple's ambitions generate a phenomenal amount of background chatter and speculation, with every single patent filing, planning permission application and job hire scrutinised. The reality is that Tim Cook and co explore many avenues and few of them see the light of day.

The rumours of the iCar have become just too big to ignore, however, echoed as they are by a spurt of development over at Apple's huge rival Google, which only this week unveiled its first driverless car built from scratch.

Google's charming little jalopy is a long way from commercial availability but the internet search king has been trialling self-driving vehicles for several years. It fitted existing models with an array of cameras and sensors and since 2009 the "autonomous vehicles" have racked up almost 1.6 million kilometres on the roads of Nevada and California, two of four US states that permit driverless cars on a test basis. At all times, a human known as a safety driver was on board, acting merely as an observer.

Google admits there have been 11 minor accidents in that time but insists the software was blameless, pinning the fault on careless other motorists and, in one case, its own human driver who was in control at the time.

Obviously, Google hopes to commercialise its car efforts at some point but don't expect to see one at your local showroom for three to five years. Even if fully autonomous cars are a long way off, upcoming models of conventional brands will sport an increasing assortment of safety sensors and warning systems.

If nothing else, they will help protect us from the erratic behaviour of human motorists. As Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving project, noted last week: "Our safety drivers routinely see people weaving in and out of their lanes; we've spotted people reading books, and even one playing a trumpet."

The numbers show 90pc of accidents worldwide can be attributed to human error and that computer driving aids make us all safer. No wonder then that Apple's radar has detected a money-making opportunity. Legendary investor Carl Icahn even wrote an open letter to the Apple board on Monday advising the company to jump into building new cars, estimating the market to be worth €1.4 trillion - four times the size of that for smartphones.

Apple has already made in-roads with car manufacturers via its CarPlay software, which extends some iPhone functionality such as music, satnav and phone calls to the dashboards of dozens of brands including BMW, Ford and Toyota. It doesn't take a leap of imagination to see Tim Cook partnering with one premium marque or even going the whole hog and building an entire car.

The secretive venture for what might be iCar even has a codename, according to the Wall Street Journal. 'Project Titan' counts several hundred Apple employees on board, including many heavy hitters recruited from the car industry.

Apple's plant at Hollyhill near Cork Airport recently completed a €300m upgrade, but it is understood the company is already eyeing another expansion that could potentially double its size there. Hollyhill is a global hub for Apple's "back office" - serving sales and support - and plays a much smaller role in manufacturing and R&D. But it is considered Apple's second most important site outside of Cupertino in California.

It would make sense that such a complex piece of machinery as the iCar would draw on the resources of Apple's Irish base, at the very least in testing and evaluation for the European market.

Most experts believe it will take five years before privately owned driverless cars hit the roads but the early signs are they are inevitable. Auto giant Daimler was this month granted a permit for the first self-driving truck in Nevada, with the promise of a fleet criss-crossing America eventually.

The CEO of taxi upstart Uber has flatly warned that it's only a matter of time before his drivers are replaced by machines.

"This is the way the world is going," said the pugnacious Travis Kalanick last year. "If Uber doesn't go there, it's not going to exist." Later, he rowed back a little saying it may take "decades" but few were convinced.

Perhaps in 2020, instead of calling an Uber, you'll be able to tap your Apple Watch to call your iPhone to summon your iCar to pick up you at the iPub. Now that I'd like to see.

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