Behind Apple’s odd VW hookup

Apple recently announced that it was outfitting Volkswagen vans with autonomous driving gear, to shuttle employees around their campus, in what seems to be a timid first test of Apple self-driving gear.

There are two big questions here…

  • Why Volkswagen?
  • Why such a small test?

To start with the second question, I think we can safely say that Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, does not want to repeat Uber’s or Tesla’s deadly blunders. Cook has proven himself to be surprisingly principled, for a man whose old job was driving costs down. He’s demanded pay increases for contractors’ front-line workers, moved the company to 100% renewable energy, and dramatically improved Apple’s ratings for sustainability, and it’s unlikely there was a good business case for any of these moves. There are a large number of Apple cars driving themselves around the headquarters area, but so far, it’s a relatively quiet effort.

As for Volkswagen, the New York Times said that Apple had already rejected Daimler (Mercedes) and BMW, which is almost a non-answer. Is Apple only able to work with Germans? The last time I looked, Apple shared a home country with three major automakers — okay, two and a half — General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. Why not pick one of them? Or, for that matter, one of the world’s largest automakers, Toyota, which has R&D facilities in Michigan?

There’s likely a large degree of snobbery involved here. While Apple claimed it chose Lexus SUVs for its first tests because they had the right basic technologies, it would have been just as easy for them to pick Chrysler 300Cs, which are far cheaper and have similar safety gear. Maybe they would have chosen Maserati, but that might be too far in the other direction.

Looking at the problem more critically, we can see that General Motors was likely rejected out of hand because GM is also working on autonomous driving, albeit through a subsidiary; so is Toyota, of which Lexus is just one nameplate. Fiat Chrysler (FCA) has already hooked up with Google/Alphabet’s Waymo division on self-driving; FCA is open to other hookups, but Apple has already been badly burned by allowing Google access to their technology, so the company is likely to give anyone working with Google a wide birth.

That basically leaves Ford among the domestics, and the reasons for not wanting to work with Ford could be anything; since the company recently announced heavy investments in electric cars, Ford could also be taking self-driving seriously. (Ford did sell electric cars, but Magna International took care of the powertrain, and its hybrids were essentially using Toyota’s system.)

As for the other major automakers, few sell appropriate vehicles in the US. Those few are Nissan, which has partnered on vans with GM, and may therefore be considered too close to a competitor; Honda, which has a definite preference for in-house technologies; and Hyundai/Kia, which has their own self-driving push, and would likely absorb whatever Apple was working on.

Of course, as one of the world’s largest automakers, Volkswagen could also be ruled out, and it’s interesting to see that Apple doesn‘t seem to see them as a threat. VW has already shown off a concept self-driving car (“Sedric”) that works like an automotive Siri. Perhaps Sedric isn’t based on VW tech, or the project was dropped for whatever reason? Or maybe VW is focusing inwards and devoting resources to electric cars instead of autonomy?

Any case we can make against Apple working with GM, Ford, or Toyota, we can also make against Apple working with Volkswagen, with one addition: VW doesn’t sell Transporters in the United States.

VW’s role might be relatively small, essentially turning over already-made T6 Transporter vans for conversion; and it may be that price is the driving factor. Given that Apple is involved, chances are we’ll never know.

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