The Apple Car may still be a far-off, almost mythical, product but that hasn’t stopped people linked to the company entering the car business in its absence.
At CES 2018, the former Apple Mac leader Jeff Chung and Carsten Breitfeld unveiled the China-based Byton Concept.
The concept is designed as a car that’s more than simply another EV. The pair’s design ethos is to use the car as a means to «reclaim time lost to traffic jams and driving in general». It ditches wing mirrors for rear-facing cameras, to improve aerodynamic efficiency, there are no keys and all antennae are integrated into the body of the car.
It feels a little like an Apple-designed car, even if it’s not. Maybe his time at the firm rubbed off on Chung.
What do we know about the Apple Car?
At the end of last year, Apple itself gave the most detailed glimpse at its Apple Car project yet in a scientific paper, posted online.
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Posted by Yin Zhou and Oncel Tuzel, on November 17 to the journal arXiv, the paper reveals that Apple’s self-driving cars will be able to spot cyclists and pedestrians better than existing technology, while still using LiDAR, thanks to a new software approach called ‘VoxelNet.’
Tuzel is the senior research scientist and manager of AI Research at Apple while Zhou is an AI researcher at the tech giant so the research is directly tied to the company, yet Apple isn’t officially commenting on the research beyond what’s in the paper.
The self-driving cars that have been tested on the road widely use LiDAR, a technology found in everything from spacecraft and robots, to speed guns. It sends pulses of light towards objects. This light bounces off the objects and the sensors can plot their surroundings based on the time it takes for the light to reflect back.
Although it is great at supplying depth information, sensors typically used in LiDAR systems are low resolution meaning it’s harder to detect small, faraway objects without the help of an additional camera. This can cause a delay, albeit a short one, with data passing between the sensors and the camera and any delay can be potentially dangerous.
With Apple’s software, the researchers have developed a system capable of better spotting pedestrians and cyclists with just LiDAR data.
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Prototypes of what was believed to be an Apple Car first emerged on Twitter. A video posted, by MacCallister Higgins, described the vehicle as the Apple Car, and although there were no Apple logos on the vehicle, it fuelled a lot of speculation. Firstly, Higgins works for Voyage, a self-driving tech company, so he should know a thing or two about the industry.
Secondly, the permit issued to Apple enabled it to test its autonomous technology on three Lexus RX450hs, and that’s the exact car in the video.
Lastly, another Twitter user reported seeing the same car pull up to an Apple shuttle stop, and then drive off.
I saw one of these a few weeks ago pull up to an Apple shuttle stop-sit there for a few then drove off. pic.twitter.com/gUudZY1TIA
— idiggapple (@idiggapple) October 18, 2017
In a Bloomberg interview at the start of July, Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted Apple has been working on a driverless system for a while now, although he’s not sure what it’ll lead to.
“We’re focusing on autonomous [car] systems,” Cook said. “We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects, [and] it’s probably one of the most difficult A.I. projects actually to work on.
«Autonomy is something that is incredibly exciting for us,” he added. “But we’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying, from a product point of view, what we will do. But we are being straightforward that it is a core technology that we view as very important.”
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As you’d expect, Apple is getting involved, but not just because it wants to steal a march on its rivals. For Tim Cook, it’s also a very interesting area in general: “There is a major disruption looming there,” he said, “not only for self-driving cars but also the electrification [of cars]. If you’ve driven an all-electric car, it’s actually a marvellous experience. And it’s a marvellous experience not to stop at the gas station. Plus, you have ride-sharing on top of this. So you’ve got three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”
Apple Car gets a branch in Berlin
According to a report by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Apple has set up shop in the heart of Berlin and has already hired between 15 and 20 employees to work at its latest branch of Project Titan. The report goes on to say that most of those employees were «progressive thinkers» who were stifled at their previous jobs – exactly the sort of thinkers the Apple Car might need.
What I find interesting is the project’s location – if it’s true of course. Germany is still the heart of the automotive industry, so the fact Apple is going there as well as Silicon Valley shows it understands the difficulties of taking on the car market, and that any experience and expertise it can get will help.