As Apple's (AAPL) autonomous driving effort continues moving slowly, the company may have to choose between doubling down on its bet or walking away from the table.
The New York Times just reported that Apple has teamed with Volkswagen to retrofit some vans for use in a self-driving shuttle service for Apple employees. But the project will miss an end-of-2018 deadline, and there's no guarantee the Apple-Volkswagen partnership will expand beyond it. In addition, the NYT reports that Apple's partnership talks with automakers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan have faltered due to the automakers' unwillingness to give Apple the kind of control it wants.
Meanwhile, Alphabet's (GOOGL) Waymo has a giant test fleet that has racked up over six million miles of real-world driving, and has begun offering rides in driverless cars along certain routes in the Phoenix area. General Motors (GM) and other incumbent automakers are also making self-driving investments, as are Intel (INTC) and Nvidia (NVDA) , both of which have a slew of partnerships with automakers.
All of this raises the question of whether Apple should use M&A to further its self-driving efforts. Buying Tesla (TSLA) would turn Apple into a major electric maker overnight and also provide it with Tesla's Autopilot platform. But Tesla's financial profile leaves a lot to be desired, and a deal would be quite expensive even if Elon Musk was willing to sell. Buying one or two self-driving startups would be much cheaper, albeit less ambitious.
No matter what Apple opts to do, however, it's best if Tim Cook's company decides quickly.