The Guardian had a great scoop this week revealing that Apple is actively scouting locations for testing self-driving cars near its Cupertino headquarters. That would strongly suggest the company is moving forward with a rumored plan to make cars — possibly in search of continued growth as its traditional (and ridiculously successful) businesses level out.
While there's enough evidence in aggregate at this point to say confidently that Apple is working on cars in some substantial capacity, we still don't have the smoking gun there there'll be an actual Apple-branded car on the streets that you and I can buy directly from Apple, just as you would a Tesla. There are a number of other possibilities that are still in the running — Apple could want to build a car platform, for instance, just as Google seems to be doing, without making or selling cars itself. Or it could be developing technologies that it can license and sell to existing automakers.
But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this is the real deal: Apple is indeed going to make an actual Apple Car, debut it at a WWDC-like event, stick it in Apple Stores, and have you drive it home. (Or, perhaps have it drive you home.) In its report, The Guardian suggests that the project could be "further along than many suspected" because of Apple's current interest in finding testing facilities.
2020 still feels like a good guess
But I don't think that's the case: an earlier Bloomberg report had previously pegged production for somewhere around 2020, and the fact that they're scouting for locations to test the car in 2015 doesn't indicate that they're moving any more quickly than that.
BMW, one of the largest automakers in the world and the company that Apple CEO Tim Cook was rumored to have recently met with to discuss the car manufacturing process, put out an interesting release in 2012 detailing the work that goes into designing and producing a new model. For them, the entire story arc takes five years — from requirements-gathering to production — and that's for an experienced automaker with all the key employees already in place and many decades of understanding on how to actually make a road-going vehicle. (Cook, as evidenced by his recent BMW visit, is still trying to figure out how they're manufactured.)
And even if you argue that a new entrant can blow up the process and do things more quickly and efficiently, there's evidence that doesn't really hold up. Tesla first showed its Model X crossover in early 2012; here we are, three and a half years later, and the Model X still isn't in customer's hands. It's not clear how far along Apple is in designing the car internally, but it only hired Marc Newson — the man most likely responsible for the look of the car alongside Jony Ive — a little less than a year ago.
Regulatory bureaucracy on multiple fronts
If Apple intends to make its car self-driving in some capacity (as it almost certainly does, especially considering that it's looking at autonomous car testing sites), it'll need to start testing systems and components years before it has an actual car ready. My guess is that they'll cobble sensors and computers on other cars — as Google did, long before it made cars of its own — and get those honed while another team works on the actual in-house vehicle. Meanwhile, there will be bureaucracies to fight on multiple fronts, both with autonomous driving systems and with getting a production car approved for domestic sale. Apple will need to worry about crash testing, for instance, which is a little more involved than your everyday FCC approval.
For Apple traditionalists who are accustomed to the pace of consumer technology and seeing a new iPhone every year, this is going to look and feel a little different: making a car isn't much like making a phone, and testing automotive systems in 2015 doesn't mean there'll be a car on sale in 2016.
So if you've got your eye on a new Mustang or Model S, go ahead and pull the trigger. You'll be ready for a new car by the time this all goes down.
Verge Video: Mercedes expects to have a self-driving car by 2030