When Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) revealed to the world that it was working on its own autonomous car, speculation ran rampant about what it could mean. As it turns out, Apple's own research and development team had tons of ideas, too -- so much so that the effort became unfocused and overwhelming. That led to last year's reorganization of the project to create autonomous software systems rather than a full-fledged vehicle.

While that means we won't be seeing the iCar anytime soon, I wouldn't count out seeing one ever. It seems as though building the autonomous sensors and software -- which Apple calls CarOS -- is the most important first step. Once that is in place, the company could proceed to make a car, or with mountains of cash, buy an automaker to help. A recent article in The New York Times shed light on engineers' early ideas of what the future iCar might look like.

A picture emerges

Here are some of the features Apple engineers initially contemplated:

  • Automatic doors that open and close silently.
  • An interior designed without a steering wheel or gas pedal (which would mean the company would have go immediately to fully autonomous Level 4 and 5 vehicles).
  • Virtual or augmented reality incorporated into interior displays.
  • Spherical wheels that allow the car to drive sideways (which is just cool).

The company also attempted to figure out a way to get rid of the clunky lidar system that adorns self-driving cars to follow Apple's tradition of making aesthetically pleasing products.

Woman reading book in front seat of a self driving car, looking out the windshield.

Image source: Getty Images.

First things first

Before all those things can happen, however, Apple needs to get the underlying technology right. That's a big enough job on its own and appears to be the direction the company is now going. It has been adding autonomous software experts, with employees reporting improved morale under new project head Bob Mansfield. 

But as I've written before, the company seems to be trailing far behind Waymo, Google's self-driving car division, and Tesla as well. While the latter is rolling out semi-autonomous features with cars already on the road, the latest Tesla models also have hardware installed that enables full autonomy once software (and regulations) catch up. 

Apple can recover

Ultimately, the road to fully autonomous vehicles will be a multi-year -- perhaps even multi-decade -- venture. A recent story in The Atlantic revealed that while Waymo has by far the most autonomous miles driven, it actually drove 830 times more miles in simulation in 2016 than it did physically (3 million miles driven vs. 2.5 billion in simulation). And Waymo's engineers can make simulated routes more challenging, which helps the company increase the sophistication of its technology at a rapid pace.

However, if that counts for the bulk of Waymo's innovation, who's to say that Apple can't build similar abilities as well? The company is on pace to spend $12 billion in research and development this year.  

Similar to how they dominate our smartphone operating systems today, Google and Apple -- and perhaps Tesla -- may establish huge franchises in autonomous vehicle software due to their vast financial resources and technical expertise. It might be years before we finally see the end products, but this is the beginning of an important race between the tech giants.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Billy Duberstein owns shares of Alphabet (C shares) and Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Apple, and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.