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Can These 3 Ex-Apple Engineers Build The Next Car Accessory Company?

Pearl's founders: Joseph Fisher, Bryson Gardner, and Brian Sander. Pearl's founders: Joseph Fisher, Bryson Gardner, and Brian Sander.
Pearl's founders: Joseph Fisher, Bryson Gardner, and Brian Sander. Courtesy of Pearl

Backing out of a tiny parking spot, sandwiched between two other cars, you can barely see what’s behind and around you. To escape unscathed, you tap your iPhone’s screen to pull up a live video feed of your rear view.

Your safe exit from the parking spot was thanks to a new wireless rear view camera from Pearl, a two-year old startup co-founded by three former Apple engineers. Last week, the startup unveiled the camera, its first product of what it hopes will be many.

Automobile technology is currently a hot area of interest among investors, many of whom are looking to the rise of autonomous driving as potential bonanza. But it’s still years away from commercialization.

Unknown startups, Elon Musk’s Tesla, and decades-old automakers like General Motors and Ford are all working on autonomous driving technology. Even Apple is reportedly building a car that could be autonomous. Their projects range from fully self-driving cars to partial autonomous technology that is more akin to cruise control.

Still, self-driving cars won’t arrive for at least a few years, and even when they do, they’ll only account for a tiny fraction of cars on the road for some time—or at least, that’s what Pearl is banking on.

“Looking historically, there has not been any interest from the OEMs to make after market products,” co-founder and CEO Bryson Gardner said about large automakers in an interview with Fortune.

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Gardner co-founded Pearl with fellow iPod alumni Joseph Fisher and Brian Sander in the spring of 2014. During the following months, they studied the automotive industry and surveyed consumers while quietly hiring an impressive number of ex-Apple employees—about 50 of the company’s 70 employees.

Eventually, the startup settled on the rear-view camera as its first product. It comes with a license plate frame outfitted with two super wide-angle nigh-vision cameras. The cameras connect to the driver’s smartphone using Bluetooth and a local Wi-Fi network it creates, turning the phone into the camera’s screen. True to the team’s roots at Apple and the company’s attention to detail and customer experience, the camera also comes with a phone mount to make using the camera more convenient and so customers can avoid having to buy one separately. “Almost every one who uses a phone mount ends up liking it and sticking with it,” Gardner said.

The rear-view camera, which can be pre-ordered now, is expected to ship in the fall. It will cost $499, a price that Gardner says puts it in the middle of pack for rival products.

Despite that fact that only 20% to 25% of cars are equipped with rear-view cameras, according to Gardner, an increasing number of car owners are interested in them along with other safety-related features. And even with new federal regulations requiring that all new cars be built with a rear-view camera starting in May 2018, many cars will still be on the road without them. After all, as Gardner points out, drivers don’t buy new cars as often as they upgrade their smartphones.

In short: Pearl’s market for its rear-view cameras is big, according to Gardner.

Of course, a fancy rear-view camera isn’t Pearl’s ultimate goal—prominent investors like Accel, Shasta Ventures, Venrock, and Wellcome Trust wouldn’t have otherwise handed the company $50 million over the past year and a half. Gardner declined to say what kind of gadgets Pearl plans next, but we can assume they’ll share several characteristics with what it currently produces: car gadgets that can be added to most any existing car and updated via software.

That last part is important, according to Shasta Ventures partner Rob Coneybeer, who sits on Pearl’s board and was an early investor in connected home thermostat business Nest.

“This type of thinking is what you see in any modern, interesting hardware product,” he told Fortune, pointing to companies like Tesla and Nest that have taken a similar approach to their products. Tesla, which first rose to fame as an electric car maker, is laying the foundation for making its cars self-driving by using some of the sensors and software already built into its newest models. As it continues to add more of this technology, Tesla will someday be able to turn on self-driving systems simply through software updates. So far, it has already used this technique to add a few capabilities like its self-parking feature Summon and automated lane-switching.

In the case of its rear-view camera, Pearl will be able to continuously improve its software and features as more customers use the cameras, according to Coneybeer. Moreover, these frequent updates will let Pearl bypass the typically slow pace of new car development.

But despite all the current excitement about car technology, Pearl will still have to prove itself, and its Apple DNA is could be both a blessing and a curse.

Like home automation company Nest, it was founded by former iPod engineers who say they have adopted Apple’s attention to detail and obsession with design, Gardner says. And like Nest, Pearl wants to bring new technology to a consumer market that has traditionally failed to evolve quickly.

In fact, Coneybeer was even introduced to Gardner through Matt Rogers, one of Nest’s founders, about a year before Gardner and his co-founders created their new startup.

With that said, Nest is going through growing pains, and CEO Tony Fadell recently resigned. His departure came amid reports of unhappy employees, product bugs, and customer complaints, and that parent company Alphabet had growing impatient with Nest’s lack of new products. Alphabet, then still called Google, acquired Nest in early 2014 for $3.2 billion.

As for other Apple alumni who have taken up entrepreneurship or significant roles at other companies, the results have been mixed, as Fortune assistant managing editor Adam Lashinsky detailed in his 2012 book Inside Apple. While former head of hardware Jon Rubinstein’s efforts to save early digital assistant maker Palm went nowhere, and Apple retail chief Ron Johnson’s subsequent switch to CEO of JCPenney was short-lived, retail executive George Blankenship helped lift Tesla’s retail strategy during his three years there before leaving in 2013.

Whether Pearl’s bets on car technology turn out to be good ones—and its ability to execute its plan—remains to be seen. But Gardner and his team are in no rush.

“Pearl is something that’s made over many years,” he said of the company’s eventual choice for a name.