It’s been three years since the first rumours of an Apple Car surfaced and, for a year or so, sightings and reports dominated headlines. Then, more recently, the project appeared to fall from view – until now.
Apple has hinted at continued Apple Car development in its recent decision to rehire Tesla’s former head of engineering, Doug Field. John Gruber of Daring Fireball broke the news that Field, whose stint at Tesla lasted five years, is returning to Apple after previously serving as the firm’s VP of Mac hardware engineering.
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This is no low-level employee; Field, who holds an MBA and an MS from MIT, was seminal in overseeing the production of the Tesla Model 3. Amid the furore surrounding the Field’s return, Apple is staying resolutely silent, refusing to give information on his role. Although if his career trajectory is anything to go buy, we can’t foresee him making tea for the marketing department. Watch this space…
In the meantime, speculation is abounding as to Apple’s car-related endeavours, with some commentators maintaining that the mysterious Project Titan, as it has been dubbed, pertains to autonomous driving technology, rather than just an Apple Car. Only time will tell.
So, what else do we know about the Apple Car? Read on to find out.
What do we know about the Apple Car?
At the end of last year, Apple gave the most detailed glimpse at its Apple Car project yet in a scientific paper, posted online.
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
Meanwhile, reports from Cult of Mac claim Apple bosses met with the California Department of Motor Vehicles at the start of April to discuss self-driving cars. Sources said six DMV officials, including deputy director Bernard Soriana and director Jean Shiomoto, attended the meeting at Apple’s 1 Infinite Loop HQ on 2 April.
It’s not known what was discussed but it likely related to the permits Apple holds to test autonomous cars on public roads in California. The meeting was held around the same time Apple was awarded a patent for windowless cars with screens that show VR footage designed to synchronise with the speed and motion of the car. In particular, Apple’s patent describes a system that would help people with feelings of travel sickness.
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.