Ex-Apple Engineers Want to Join the Move Toward Autonomous Cars

  • Pearl Inc. introduces rear-view camera beginning in September
  • Startup plans to offer technology to retrofit current autos

Apple Inc.’s plans to build a car remain shrouded in mystery, but a group of engineers who helped create the iPod and iPhone have a vision to transform millions of today’s cars into the self-driving vehicles of tomorrow.

Founded by a team of Apple veterans, Pearl Automation Inc. said Tuesday that its first product, a rear-view camera, will be available in September in the U.S. After the camera, which is similar to those that come standard on many new autos, the startup plans a slew of devices that can be built into your car to bring it up to speed with the latest driving capabilities.

“Whenever the first autonomous car rolls off the production line, there are more than a billion cars that aren’t autonomous,’’ Bryson Gardner, Pearl’s chief executive officer, said in an interview in San Francisco. “If you develop a new technology, it takes three to 10 years to get into the car. And then once it’s in the new car, it appears in a small number of the cars and it can take 10 to 20 years to become prevalent in the vast majority of the cars, to trickle down from luxury.”

In eight years at Apple, Gardner helped lead the development of 13 iPods and three iPhones. In 2014, a year after leaving the Cupertino, California-based company, he teamed up with two former colleagues to found Pearl in nearby Scotts Valley. The company has raised $50 million in two funding rounds from Shasta Ventures Management LLC, Accel Management Co., Venrock Associates and The Wellcome Trust Ltd. Their investment is a gamble on the automation of cars, a market that is set to grow from about $2.4 billion today to $102 billion by 2030, according to a March 2015 estimate from Lux Research Inc.

The car that Apple is developing might seek to win a slice of the 17 million new vehicles sold annually in the U.S. Pearl wants to persuade the owners of the other 243 million cars on American roads to buy its products.

Pearl’s ability to build the full range of necessary technologies is dependent on the success of the backup camera. The $500 solar-powered system is embedded in the vehicle registration plate casing and displays a vehicle’s rear view on the driver’s smartphone via Wi-Fi. While that’s a steep price compared with a competing product from Garmin Ltd., which starts at $169.99, Gardner said Pearl’s device will come with regular software updates for upgraded features such as lines superimposed on the image to aid with parking, as well as the relative ease of installation, which doesn’t require drilling a hole for wiring.

“The underlying technology that we really see being valuable is a lot of the stuff leading up to the autonomous car,’’ said Gardner, whose 70-person strong company includes 50 Apple alumni. “The core tenet of every product we see in the car is that they should learn over time.’’