Every year, the California Department of Motor vehicles releases a “Disengagement Report” for companies that are authorized to operate and test self-driving vehicles on the state’s roads. The report is controversial, mainly because it’s effectively just raw data. But it can in some cases provide insight into how autonomous-mobility firms are progressing, as they push toward commercializing their technologies and services.
For example, General Motors’ standalone autonomy unit, Cruise, racked up over 770,000 self-driven miles in 2020, as the company noted in a Medium post last week. Cruise pointed out that disengagements — that’s when the autonomous system disconnects and a human safety driver has to take over — declined to zero in the last three months of the year.
Impressive, Cruise has been testing in the Bay Area since GM acquired it in 2016, with results promising enough to secure over $7 billion in investment and to post a $30 billion valuation.
Meanwhile, Apple recorded only about 19,000 miles in California, with a far higher rate of disengagement. The 2020 numbers were actually a big improvement on 2019, but if anyone expects the much-discussed Apple Car — codenamed “Project Titan — to be able to drive itself, they’re going to have to be exceptionally patient.
Cruise has a good five years under its belt, and its main competitor, Alphabet’s Waymo, has been testing for more than a decade.
Tesla and Apple are nowheresville
What about Tesla? Well, Tesla doesn’t even appear in the California DMV stats, and that’s because Tesla’s self-driving tech, known as Autopilot Full Self-Driving (FSD), remains a feature that exists as a hardware and software capability that hasn’t been released (even though Tesla has been happy to charge buyers for it).
In the meantime, Tesla has a fleet of vehicles, owned by civilians, roaming the world’s highways and byways, amassing a vast amount of camera-derived visual data that the company expects to be able to use for a go-anywhere autonomous offering that could challenge the laser-reliant systems that the likes of Cruise, Waymo, other major players in the incipient industry favor.
It’s tempting to give Apple and Tesla a pass, on the assumption that the former is among the best-managed companies in human history and could make up lost ground simply because it could throw billions at the problem; and that the latter is Tesla, with a long history of defying naysayers.
On the other hand, the latest round of rumors about the Apple Car arriving in dramatic fashion and remaking transportation, as with similar rumors over the past five years, are collapsing under scrutiny. Hyundai-Kia and Apple aren’t actually in talks to build the vehicle. A top Apple executive isn’t moving over to save Project Titan but is taking over the much more sensible virtual-reality effort.
My view is that there will never be an Apple Car, much less a self-driving one, and the latest Disengagement Report is just another proof point. Cruise and Waymo are serious. Apple isn’t.
Tesla, however, has a CEO in Elon Musk who doesn’t want to be left out of the self-driving story. His motivation is business-minded: If Tesla can develop its own autonomous ride-hailing or ride-sharing service, it could garner a nice chunk of what could someday be a high-profit, multi-trillion-dollar market.
But for now, Tesla is making far better progress as an electric-car pioneer, dominating the rise of this alternative to a century of gas-powered vehicles. The bigger and better Tesla gets at this, the less it has to worry about developing services to rival Waymo and Cruise, who, despite their encouraging results, have yet to create any meaningful revenue.
The comeback of the reality distortion field
To understand why anyone is even talking about Apple and Tesla in this context, you have to go back to a Steve Jobs-era term: “reality distortion field.” Jobs, as charismatic a business leader as capitalism has ever produced, was legendary for his ability to make people believe in fantasies. Luckily for him, Apple became exceptional at transforming those beliefs into tangible products that yielded massive profits.
The Jobsian RDF persists, even under CEO Tim Cook, an incredibly capable executive, but a man ruled by a steadfast connection to the actual world. That’s why the latest batch of gossip about Project Titan is so sad: Cook would never get behind such a daffy undertaking. The fantasy falls apart as soon the details come under investigation.
The Muskian RDF is something else entirely, a radical expansion of Jobs’ vision. Tesla has thrown a lot of engineering might behind autonomy, and the technology it has developed is spectacularly interesting — game-changing if it ever works.
But at the moment, Tesla has delivered what is, at best, an advanced cruise-control system that’s not hugely better than what GM, Mercedes, Volvo, and other established automakers are selling.
I expect Apple to bail out, once again, on the probably all-electric, possibly self-driving car project, as it has several times already. The last round of chatter served its purpose: it kept Apple in the conversation, and it didn’t cost anything.
But Tesla has a reckoning upon it. Waymo is already venturing into the commercialization of its systems, at a small scale, and Cruise is likely to follow this year or next. Tesla’s surging market capitalization and booming stock price are an indication that investors now think EVs have finally crossed a tipping point. Their foresight has been backed up by the likes of GM and Ford announcing almost $60 billion in EV investment over the coming decades.
Tesla’s influence, in this framework, is stunning. So stunning that its thus-far flimsy self-driving undertakings look pathetic by comparison — a quixotic science project as best, and a stupid waste of money at worst.
That’s not enough to make Musk throw in the towel. But in the next few years, he’s going to have to guide Tesla toward its most logical destiny, and ruling the rapidly growing world EVs makes a lot more sense than continuing to cajole Tesla toward a self-driving future that looks less and less promising as time goes on.