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Did Apple Just Cancel the Future of AVs?

In Star Trek parlance, the AV industry has been confronted with a Kobayashi Maru, or a no-win situation, since its inception.

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By Colin Barnden

What’s at stake:
First Argo AI was shuttered, then GM Cruise crashed out. Next Aptiv abandoned Motional, and now Apple has canceled development of its autonomous driving “Project Titan” in favor of generative AI. Does the AV industry have a future, or even a purpose?

Of all the possible threats to the development of autonomous driving, the dramatic rise of generative AI probably wasn’t on anyone’s list. How any driverless developer could kill someone on public roads and the event itself then not kill the company has been the issue haunting this industry all along.

Uber ATG never recovered from the death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, in March 2018. Similarly, GM Cruise dragged a pedestrian in October 2023, and as of this writing has its driverless operations suspended across the U.S.

In Star Trek parlance, the AV industry has been confronted with a Kobayashi Maru, or a no-win situation, since its inception. The major players successfully lobbied and charmed public officials at a city, state, or federal level, to allow them to test their technology on public roads, all the while using non-consenting members of the public as lab rats.

But the event most likely to lead to the serial extinction of each of the AV developers always looked most likely to be fatal collisions with vulnerable road users. An AV developer cannot claim its machine driver is “saving lives,” and safer than an average human driver, while simultaneously injuring or killing members of the traveling public.

An effective solution to this no-win situation was to install a human “safety driver” in the driver’s seat, who could either intervene at the last possible instant to prevent a crash or who, in the event of a fatal collision, could be thrown under the bus and blamed by the corporate machine.

Unfortunately, no one is fooled by the contradiction of a “driverless” vehicle with a safety driver behind the wheel, so Cruise and Waymo just removed the safety drivers and went on the PR and lobbying offensive about how safe their technology is, and how terrible human drivers are.

Any trend which cannot go on forever, won’t. So, the slow demise of the driverless industry was already in motion when Silicon Valley did what Silicon Valley does and moved fast and broke things.

Creative destruction
The pace of innovation in Silicon Valley is so great that entire industries often thought of as disruptive can themselves be disrupted, sometimes seemingly overnight.

The emergence of generative AI as a new class of technology can be pinned to November 2022, with the release of ChatGPT by OpenAI. Whether generative AI in all its forms is a genuinely useful tool or not is largely irrelevant at this moment in time.

On February 21, Nvidia released its latest quarterly results, which were so impressive by the rise in chip sales for generative AI as to raise the company’s market capitalization by more than $270 billion in just a single day, reportedly Wall Street’s largest one-day gain in history.

Investor sentiment has now moved on to all things generative AI. Apple has bowed to the inevitable and redeployed its efforts accordingly.

As of this writing, Nvidia’s market capitalization stands at about $2 trillion, compared with about $2.8 trillion for Apple. As has been widely reported Apple was clearly forced to abandon its plans for an autonomous Apple Car (often referred to as “Project Titan”) to focus its efforts and resources onto generative AI.

What the response to Nvidia’s results tells us is that investor sentiment has now moved on to all things generative AI. Apple has bowed to the inevitable and redeployed its efforts accordingly, and in so doing, confirmed autonomous driving as the last “next big thing,” with generative AI taking over as the new “next big thing.”

The process of creative destruction for which Silicon Valley is famous has simply repeated itself once more. The key issue now for the wider autonomous industry is what happens next to investor sentiment towards robotaxi firms like Waymo, and robotruck firms like Aurora.

The AV sector has already had more than ten years as the big future of tech and has collectively burned through many tens of billions of dollars of funding, but still remains mired in the ethical issues of operating on public roads. Other unknowns are the on-going R&D costs to make the technology safe, commercialization costs to actually deploy and scale it, and whether consumers even want to use robotaxis at all.

NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has already issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to investigate the implementation of technology to detect for distracted, drowsy, and impaired driving, which is the critical role of a driver monitoring system, or DMS.

These issues were discussed in detail in a panel hosted by The Ojo-Yoshida Report featuring Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Seeing Machines.

With regulatory agencies in the U.S. starting to look seriously at technology to make human drivers safer, questions will be asked as to the purpose of AV technology.

Earlier this month it was reported two of Waymo’s robotaxis had crashed into the same towed truck, and with serious questions to be answered about the commercial viability and legal liability of AV technology, it is unclear whether investors will continue to fund the industry in future when immediate and better returns are offered from investing in generative AI.

Apple CarPlay vs. Qualcomm GenAI
Apple missed the moment to create a “wow” factor with a car. In January, it was reported that the Apple Car would offer only L2+ supervised automation features, not L4 or L5 autonomous driving as had been so often touted. But just look at the experiences of GM Cruise and Waymo in real world conditions to see how far away full autonomy really is.

Apple also had a chance to revolutionize the digital cockpit, but Qualcomm soundly beat it to that accolade, and Qualcomm has almost every automaker signed up already for its cockpit applications processor, indicating the direction of travel.

The remaining automotive-related issue is what Apple will do next with CarPlay. In December it was reported Apple’s next-generation CarPlay will appear first in Porsche and Aston Martin models.

But the battle ahead is what Apple can do with CarPlay, versus what Qualcomm can do in the cockpit with generative AI. Whilst almost unthinkable just three months ago, one possible outcome from here is that Apple ends up quitting the automotive industry entirely.

Bottom Line:
Apple’s decision to cancel the Apple Car in favor of generative AI could be the start of its complete exit from the automotive industry and sound the death knell for the wider AV sector.

Colin Barnden is principal analyst at Semicast ResearchHe can be reached at

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