How Apple’s self-driving tech may power your next ride.
Apple Car? iCar? Project Titan? Call it what you will: The main question surrounding the Apple Car has switched from “will they, or won’t they?” to “when will it show up?” Official details are sparse and often misleading, yet it appears Apple has pried open its war chest to study the automotive industry — and wants to jump in head-first. Here’s everything you need to know about the Apple car project.
SO THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING? APPLE’S BUILDING A CAR?
Not so fast, my friend. Despite photos of Apple cars and rumors galore, we don’t think Apple is developing a car from scratch. Instead, it’s spent years working on fine-tuning autonomous technology.
A just revealed patent application titled “Autonomous Navigation System” is meant to reduce the amount of computing power needed to operate one self-driving machines. And comments from the very top of the company also point toward Apple as a tech provider rather than car maker.
“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” company CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg in June. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He added the company’s research effort is “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”
Artificial intelligence will be core to tomorrow’s cars; it’s no surprise Apple wants to be involved. In early December, Ruslan Salakhutdinov (Apple’s head of A.I.) spoke at an AI-focused event in Long Beach, California. One of the topics he touched upon was a recently released study documenting Apple’s advances in using lidars (3D scanners) to help self-driving cars identify pedestrians and cyclists.
So I won’t ever see an Apple-branded car?
Hey, never say never. After all, start-ups are common in tech, and a growing pool of companies think they can be the next Ford. Tesla, Faraday Future, Lucid Motors, and Karma (plus this mystery company Edison) and tech giants like Uber and Waymo are in it up to their eyeballs. Apple could be, too.
Meanwhile, Apple is working on vehicles of a sort. In August, the company revealed that it would build driverless shuttles to tootle between Apple Park, the company’s vast “spaceship” campus that opened just recently, and 1 Infinite Loop, Apple’s longstanding head office situated about a mile down the road.
Self-driving shuttles are becoming increasingly common, and offer insight into what cars of the future might look like (and how they will drive). Companies like Oxbotica and EasyMile testing out similar services in London and Paris, respectively. Las Vegas rolled out such a service recently, called Navya — and we were conveniently aboard when it crashed.
ARE SELF-DRIVING CARS EVEN LEGAL?
Laws will definitely need to be written ir adapted to deal with the changes sweeping through the automotive world, and the tech giant wants to get involved in shaping regulation, too. In December of 2016, a letter from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was discovered. It offered “comments on the proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” and it contained Apple’s suggestions for how to best “protect the traveling public and keep up with the pace of innovation.”
“We’ve provided comments to the NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said at the time. “There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation, so we want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry.”
Surprisingly, the Cupertino-based tech giant has become increasingly open about its automotive ambitions. It received a permit to test self-driving cars from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in April. Shortly after, a white Lexus RX450h equipped with enough sensors, cameras, and radars to power a nuclear submarine was spotted exiting an Apple facility. Coincidence? We think not.
Apple quickly resorted to industrial omertà and chose not to comment on the prototype. In a second letter, however, the company called upon its home state to toughen its policy on testing self-driving cars on public roads. It believes California should require companies to hand over more data to government officials, which could help it catch up with rivals such as Google and Uber that have been developing self-driving cars for much longer. Apple is hardly in a leadership position, unless it’s become very, very good at hiding prototypes.
Executives also asked for more details about the use of safety drivers during autonomous testing on public roads. In addition, they believe the requirements that dictate the kinds of cars companies are allowed to test should be loosened.