It would tell us that Apple is millions of miles behind Google, and falling further behind every day.
As one of the few companies in the world richer than Google, Apple can match the cars, sensors, processors, navigational systems and other pieces of hardware that Google might deploy. It can replicate the sophisticated maps that Google has compiled. It will have a very hard time, however, catching up with Google’s on-the-road learning.
Google’s lead in autonomous cars is certainly very meaningful and very impressive. Very. It’s based on great talent, foresight, timing, and hard work. It’s one of the many reasons I respect and really like Google (/Alphabet). And, even if there’s a much more gradual, prolonged shift to autonomous cars — i.e., via semi-autonomous cars – Google is in a strong position to capitalize on that.
And Chunka Mui is right to say that Apple will have a “very hard time” catching up. By definition, the nature of the problem that Google, Apple and others aim to solve is “very hard”. And, more to Mui’s point, it’s true that reaching Google’s level of proficiency will be, again in his words, “very hard”.
But, so what? It would be a mistake to equate “very hard” with unlikely.
First, it’s very, extremely, immensely early in the shift to autonomous cars. And, as an aside, it’s so early that even if Apple’s first car isn’t a fully autonomous car, it might be *exactly* the right product for that moment in time.
Second, to generalize, the one thing Apple (like Google and Tesla) is good at is solving “very hard” problems. And, unlike Google, Apple has, for years, solved ones that combine computing and physical interaction; bits and atoms, integrated.
Third, there are many dimensions of competition. (The contrast between Google’s approach to mobile devices and Apple’s illustrates this perfectly.) In the context of cars, Google has amassed a lead in one major one: autonomy. In smartphone terms, that’s like mastering the very essential aspect of — pick your analogy – connectivity, sensing, imaging. Each one is an essential-but-not-sufficient condition for success. (I’ll highlight other conditions or dimensions in upcoming posts.)
So, Mui’s article is well worth reading. But, to beat the smartphone analogy to death, it’s the year 1995, in smartphone terms. And yes, some will say “Time moves ‘faster’ now; competitors learn at an accelerated pace. ‘1995-to-now’ will happen rapidly”. In some ways, that’s true. But there are also key differences: regulation, consumer psyche, and a very high-stakes environment, where quality, privacy, and security matter at — to use a Google term — a 10X level. It’s too early to discount Apple.