Intelligence of Things

The Smarter Car: Who Will Get There First?

Apple won’t be building that self-driving car — or, at least, not the way it originally envisioned. It came to light last month that the tech giant was redirecting its vehicular efforts, code-named “Project Titan,” away from designing an actual smart car to focus on building the internal technology. After all, the car is only as autonomous as its software allows it to be.

Now, it looks like Jaguar may be building the smart car Apple couldn’t.

At its annual Tech Fest in London, Jaguar unveiled its Future-Type concept car — a compact vehicle with autonomous technology and assisted manual driving options, tailored for navigating tight urban quarters. But what really has people talking is the voice command element: a removable steering wheel called “Sayer,” which builds on current voice-activated technology from players like Amazon and Google.

If it makes it out of the concept phase, the Sayer wheel could challenge more than Apple’s Project Titan. It’s designed to go wherever the driver goes, and it does everything consumers’ smart mobile devices and smart home speakers do now, from playing music to setting appointments to controlling the smart home to summoning the vehicle via a voice command. In other words, it could replace all of those things with a single omnipotent device.

Of course, not everyone can afford to own a Jaguar, but with the Sayer wheel, they wouldn’t have to own one. The wheel would act as the key for a network of linked, shared self-driving vehicles. Along with all its other individualized functions, the wheel would store each driver’s personal profile and adapt to meet their needs once it’s engaged — including giving manual control to operators who just love to drive. Yes, the futuristic steering wheel does actually steer the car, on top of everything else.

Picture it: Individuals own Sayer wheels. Communities own cars. It’s the utopian endpoint of sharing economy dreamers. But is that all it is — just an AI dream? Or can Jaguar build foundations underneath this castle in the clouds?

It may not be as crazy as it seems. Apple obviously saw potential in this vertical, with CEO Tim Cook telling Bloomberg, “I think there is a major disruption looming there. Not only for self-driving cars, but also the electrification piece. Plus, you have ridesharing on top of this. And so, you’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame. So, as we look at it … we’re focusing on autonomous systems.”

Cook’s statement about Apple focusing on autonomous technology has largely been interpreted as a surrender, but Seeking Alpha doesn’t think that’s the case. Taken in context, Cook’s remarks instead indicate that Apple wants to lay the foundation first — just as Jaguar would need to do.

Surprisingly, Ford could be another heavyweight in this shift toward autonomous shared vehicles, despite 114 years in the traditional, individually owned car business. The automaker has invested in self-driving cars already with Argo AI, a startup launched in February by Google and Uber veterans, which is working to deliver a fully autonomous car via Ford Motor Company by 2021. Ford gave the enigmatic startup $1 billion to do it.

Ford CEO James Hackett told SFGate that there will be little place for “dumb cars” in a smart car future; consumers won’t understand why they need them. He doesn’t think drivers will ever fully let go of the car they buy and drive themselves, but he does expect to see a major shift toward that sharing economy model that Jaguar is banking on, and he would rather Ford embrace that than try to fight it.

Fewer car sales doesn’t have to mean too little revenue; it just means Ford will have to find other ways to earn its keep, like charging fees for powering certain smart functions, like choosing whether to wait in a drive-through line for coffee or proceed to the next destination on its path. Hackett sees it as a triple win: The retailer that pays gets an advantage, Ford earns its fee and the car’s occupant gets to skip the line.

Going fully autonomous won’t be an instant transformation, Hackett told SFGate. It will require a progressive rollout and ongoing development to design vehicles that can drive themselves in less-than-ideal conditions like cold, rain or snow.

General Motors, Nissan, Volkswagen, Tesla and others — including companies which have never made cars before, like Apple and Google — all want a piece of the autonomous vehicle pie, perhaps unsurprisingly. But what is surprising is that even the traditional automakers seem to agree that automation alone won’t solve congestion. They need to reduce the number of cars on the road if they actually want to solve that problem.

Who knows? Those sharing economy dreamers might just get their way.

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