Is Apple working on a self-driving car – or just an automated driving software system? Read on to find out what’s going on behind the steering wheel at Apple.
Apple has a number of projects going on behind the scenes, and at least one of them involves cars. The company – just like many other tech companies – is looking at how technology will find its way into the cars of the future. We don’t mean that Apple is building an actual car, but it does appear that the company is interested in the technology behind self-driving cars and other exciting developments in that space. (And one analyst still thinks Apple is likely to make the cars itself within the next two years.)
The iCar project has been going on behind the scenes at Apple for a long time. Back in February 2015, there were murmurs that Apple was working on a car that would “give Tesla a run for its money” after Business Insider spoke to an Apple employee with knowledge of the subject. This, coupled with sightings of cars registered to Apple clad with sensors/cameras (which were later debunked), got everyone talking about the prospects of an Apple Car, or iCar.
The iCar project is codenamed ‘Titan’, according to The Wall Street Journal, which originally stated there were “several hundred” Apple employees working on the project.
While reports originally claimed that Apple was working on a self-driving car, a 2017 interview with CEO Tim Cook suggested that Apple may have changed directions on the project and is now working on an autonomous driving platform. This was supported in November 2017, when two Apple computer scientists published research proposing a 3D detection system called VoxelNet, which they said would work effectively at helping autonomous cars avoid collisions with pedestrians and cyclists. It’s since emerged that the company has filed a patent dealing with in-vehicle climate control.
Whatever the end product, Apple is developing something car-related, whether it’s an autonomous driving system, an Apple Car or simply an in-car entertainment system – although the company will never admit what. We’ll let you read all the evidence below and decide for yourselves.
When will the Apple iCar launch?
Of course, until we see Tim Cook on stage announcing the iCar, no one knows when or if any car related software or hardware will ever be released by Apple. But Bloomberg is among the brave outlets willing to put a time frame on the iCar development, suggesting that Apple will release the iCar as soon as 2020.
The journalists claim to have spoken to people close to the matter, who say: “Apple, which has been working secretly on a car, is pushing its team to begin production of an electric vehicle as early as 2020.”
Automakers usually spend between five and seven years developing a car, which shows Apple’s aggressive and demanding goals for its team. Is it gearing up for a battle against GM and Tesla? Both aim to have electric vehicles that travel over 200 miles on a single charge on the market by 2017.
Outspoken Apple analyst and lover of Apple TV rumours Gene Munster reportedly told clients in a note that we shouldn’t expect the iCar for at least five years. He believes that a TV will be coming before an iCar, simply because profits are even smaller on cars than they are on TVs – a TV would also make more sense with Apple’s hardware/software background, he says.
However with this being said, the WSJ reports that Apple has revised its original plan of a 2020 announcement and is instead aiming for a slightly closer announcement.
The report claims that Apple has designated the iCar internally as a “committed project” and is now aiming for a 2019 release date after spending more than a year looking into the feasibility of an Apple-branded car, although conflicting reports suggest it’ll be two years later, by 2021.
Those of you expecting to see an Apple-branded car on the roads in 2019 may be disappointed, as for Apple a ‘ship date’ doesn’t necessarily mean the date that customers can buy the iCar.
Instead, it refers to the date that Project Titan engineers will sign off on the iCar’s main features. It’ll still have to undergo rigorous testing once these features have been signed off before any consumers are able to get their hands on it.
What Tim Cook says about the Apple Car
Apple CEO Tim Cook also sat down with Bloomberg in June 2017 to discuss autonomous driving.
Talking about the project, Cook says that Apple is “focusing on autonomous systems” and that “it’s a core technology that we view as very important. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects to actually work on”.
Of course, Cook wouldn’t confirm or deny whether Apple is working on producing an iCar, driverless or otherwise, or whether the technology will be used by existing car manufacturers. “We’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.”
According to Cook, Apple is currently focusing on everything it takes to ‘view’ the world around the car and understanding what it means in the context of navigation and safety.
While this isn’t confirmation that Apple is working on a car to utilise the self-driving technology, it’s not a huge leap to make either.
Apple’s Tim Cook also discussed the possibility of an Apple Car during an interview with Fortune in February 2016. Cook said: “We don’t have to spend large amounts to explore”.
Apparently, Apple becomes “committed” to a project once the company begins spending huge amounts of money on tools, company acquisitions and other processes (as rumours suggest the company has), although hiring experts don’t seem to count. “We explore things with teams of people. And that’s a part of being curious,” Cook said.
It wasn’t the last that Cook had to say about the iCar, either. Only days after speaking to Fortune, Cook teased attendees at an Apple shareholders meeting about future possibilities. “Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve… it was so exciting,” Cook reportedly said. “You weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs. Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.” We’ll obviously be waiting some time for an Apple-branded car, but the latest comments from the Apple CEO will definitely add fuel to the fire.
During Apple’s Q4 2016 financial results, Apple CEO Tim Cook answered a flurry of questions regarding Apple Pay, Siri and most importantly, the Apple Car. While the CEO neither confirmed or denied the existence of Apple’s rumoured electric car, he said that Apple “always looks for ways that we can improve the experience and the customers’ experience on different sets of products”.
“And we are always looking at new things, and the car space in general is an area that it’s clear that there is a lot of technologies that will either become available or will be able to revolutionise the car experience.” he continued. “And so it’s interesting from that point of view, but nothing to, certainly nothing to announce today.”
As usual, Cook is speaking in riddles, but if you read between the lines, it does hint that Apple may have something to announce somewhere down the line.
Evidence that Apple is working on an automated car
Here is where we list some of the most prominent rumours suggesting Apple is making an iCar.
Guggenheim analyst Robert Cirha, in a research memo sent out to clients and seen by AppleInsider, has argued that Apple will “get all-in or all-out [of self-driving cars] over the next 2 years”, and adds that his firm is “thinking all-in, given the draw of technology disruption and sheer size of [the potential market]”.
The generally accepted wisdom at present is that Apple will make software for cars rather than the cars themselves. But Cirha observes that this does not fit with the company’s MO, which is to control the entire experience, hardware and software together. (Apple does make iTunes for Windows and a migration app for Android, but there are very few exceptions to this rule.)
“We see its entire business model based on vertically integrated control,” he writes, “so think it unlikely Apple sells modular AI to third parties.”
This is just a prediction, and it would still be a huge step for Apple to take on the car market: Cirha notes that this could go either way. But his argument that ‘all in’ is more likely has a good amount of sense to it.
Apple’s self-driving fleet
Apple has a test fleet of 27 self-driving vehicles, according to a Bloomberg report.
The company has been testing its autonomous cars in California since at April 2017 when it received its first permits to test there.
The Bloomberg report claims that Apple has registered 24 Lexus RX450h sport-utility vehicles in addition to the three it was already using for tests.
This could be evidence of an iCar in the works, or simply a plan for software controls accessed via CarPlay or a future in-car interface; or it could be neither, since much patent activity by Apple and other companies is speculative and may never lead anywhere. But Apple’s filing of a patent for climate control in vehicles certainly indicates (once again) that cars are in the company’s thoughts.
The patent, number 2018001734, involves the maintenance of “optimal comfort conditions”.
“The climate control system controls various vehicle components to control climate conditions, including window assemblies, sunroof assemblies, etc,” writes AppleWorld. “It determines optimal comfort conditions that optimise perceived temperature of various occupant body parts and maintain various climate characteristics within one or more sets of thresholds.”
Ruslan Salakhutdinov, Apple’s director of artificial intelligence research, attended the NIPS conference in December 2017 and spoke at length about several projects the company has been working on. One has been disclosed before (as outlined below) but several were news to the Apple-following public.
Conference visitors heard about software that can identify pedestrians from camera images even if the camera is splashed with water and the pedestrian obscured by a parked car; and Apple has been collecting data for detailed digital maps of car-relevant features such as lights and road markings.
Wired has a full write-up of the talk.
Yin Zhou and Oncel Tuzel, a pair of computer scientists who work for Apple, have published research into methods that could be used by automated cars to avoid collisions with pedestrians and cyclists.
The research, posted to the online journal arXiv.org, proposes a software system called VoxelNet, “a generic 3D detection network that unifies feature extraction and bounding box prediction into a single stage, end-to-end trainable deep network”. The system has seen promising results, the scientists report, but it has been tested in simulations only, rather than on the road.
The publication offer hints that Apple may be close to an announcement related to autonomous vehicles, although it is understood that the company is easing up on the secrecy it has traditionally imposed on its researchers – something that has made it increasingly difficult to hire the leading figures in AI, who are used to a policy of academic openness.
Apple pens letter to US transport regulators about self-driving car rules
While many had believed that Apple was stepping away from the autonomous car project, a letter penned to US transport regulators by Apple’s director of product integrity Steve Kenner may suggest otherwise. Apple has apparently said that it was “excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation” and that there were “significant societal benefits of automated vehicles” to be realised.
An Apple spokesman has confirmed that the letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was prompted by its “heavy investment in machine learning and autonomous systems” and that it wanted to help define best practises in the industry going forward.
The letter urges regulators to not introduce too many rules regarding the testing of self-driving cars, claiming that “established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally“. Kenner also suggests that companies should share data from crashes and near-misses to build a more comprehensive picture than would be possible by one company alone, helping to improve the systems.
Of course, with Apple being so focused on user privacy, it’d be out of character not to mention it in the letter. Kenner notes that an individual’s privacy should not be compromised by the sharing of data, and that regulators “address privacy challenges associated with the collection, use, and sharing of automated vehicle data“.
Apple awarded self-driving car permit in California
Following Apple’s letter to the NHTSA in late 2016, Apple has been awarded a permit that’ll let the company test autonomous vehicles on public roads in California.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the permit lets Apple retrofit three 2015 Lexus SUVs with all the technology required for autonomous driving. The permit also allows for six people to sit in the cars during testing and can take over driving if/when necessary.
This suggests that Apple has been conducting successful tests on closed tracks and wants to really push the system by testing it on public roads where there are more variables for the autonomous driving system to deal with.
Is Apple still developing a self-driving iCar, or is it testing out autonomous technology for other manufacturers to use? Both options are possible, but it’ll be a while before we find out for sure.
Bloomberg reports that Apple and its Project Titan team – focusing on an autonomous car OS following the closure of the Apple Car project – have hired a number of former BlackBerry engineers as part of a new Canadian office in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa.
“Many of the engineers working in Canada were hired over the past year and about two dozen came from BlackBerry’s QNX, a leading automotive software provider,” writes the outlet, citing “people familiar with the matter”. Among Apple’s hires from QNX is Dan Dodge, the firm’s CEO.
QNX staff were targeted by Apple because of the company’s experience “developing fundamental components of operating systems and power management”, an ex-QNX employee told Bloomberg.
‘Engine noises’ heard late at night at Apple Car campus
If Apple isn’t developing a car, this rumour will be pretty hard to explain: AppleInsider has reported that someone who lives near Apple’s mysterious campus in Sunnyvale, Calfornia (believed to be where Apple is developing its car) complained about “motor noises” coming from the facility at night.
“[Do] there have to [be] motor noises at 11:00 p.m. at night like last night? Even with the windows closed I could still hear it,” the resident reportedly remarked.
However, the resident may be mistaken – construction sounds sound similar to the revving of an engine, especially at a distance. Last year, Sunnyvale issued permits to Apple allowing the company to build a “windowless repair garage” at one of the buildings Apple operates at, so it’s possible that is what was heard – although why the construction would take place at night is a mystery.
It’s also worth noting that if Apple is building a prototype car at the facility, the noises could be the sound of the lathes and mills required to shape the metal, a notoriously noisy process.
Apple buys car-related domain names
As first reported by MacRumours, it appears that Apple has bought a number of car-related domain names including apple.car, apple.cars and apple.auto. The purchases took place in December 2015 and were brought to light via Whois, a service that finds information regarding specific domain names and IP addresses.
Whois records were updated on January 8 2016 to show that Apple had registered the domains through registrar MarkMonitor Inc, although it’s worth noting that none of the registered domains are currently active.
While this may seem like confirmation that Apple is working on an Apple Car, it may not be the case; Apple could be buying the domains for use with Apple’s in-car system, CarPlay. It could also be to stop potential scammers looking to make money from people in light of the recent Apple Car rumours. Although with this being said, Apple bought iCloud.com months before its announcement and that was also picked up by MacRumours.
Apple ‘testing a self-driving car at a War World II naval base’
Project Titan is on its way, at least according to the Guardian.
The newspaper reports that Apple has already developed its self-driving car, and now it just needs to be tested.
Unlike many carmakers – such as Google and Tesla – that are testing their self-driving vehicles on public roads, Apple wants to keep a low profile. That means the company needs some barricaded doors behind which it can test its secretive projects.
Apparently Apple has found the perfect top-secret testing base. Back in May 2016, according to the Guardian, Apple’s engineers met officials from GoMentum Station, a War World II-epoch disused naval base near San Francisco.
The base reportedly hosts 20 miles of everyday public transport scenarios, from highways to cattle grids; its 24-hour surveillance by armed soldiers prevents the public from nosing around the facility. According to GoMentum officials, the base is “the largest secure test facility in the world”.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the leaked report obtained by the Guardian consists of a filed public requests record about the meeting between Apple’s team and GoMentum officials.
There is no mention of an Apple iCar, and the most revealing clue comes from Apple engineer Frank Fearon, who said: “We would … like to get an understanding of timing and availability for the space, and how we would need to coordinate with other parties who would be using [GoMentum].”
Apple hiring car industry veterans
Perhaps the clearest sign of Apple’s interest in the car industry is the number of new hires it’s made from that field.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Tim Cook has hired Doug Betts, a veteran of the car industry. Doug Betts has 25 years of experience working for Nissan and Toyota; from 2007 until last year, he was senior vice-president of Global Quality at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
The automobile expert has changed his LinkedIn profile. He describes his current job as “operation-Apple Inc.”, which could be interpreted as evidence to back up the WSJ’s rumour. On the other hand, this cryptic statement could mean a lot of things.
Since February 2015, Apple seems to have been quietly cherry-picking automobile industry experts – such as Paul Furgale, the Swiss researcher who led the V-Charge project developing self-parking cars.
Business Insider’s source claims that Tesla employees are “jumping ship” to go and work at Apple. Evidence via LinkedIn supports this claim, with 50 profiles of current Apple employees that have an engineering history at Tesla, mainly through internships. Apple Insider reported that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that Apple is trying very hard to get Tesla engineers, offering them a $250k signing bonus and 60 percent pay increase.
The Korea Times has reported that Apple is also luring Samsung’s tech experts away from them, namely experts in battery technology; perhaps to work on batteries for the iPhone, but also, reports suggest to work on a battery powered electric car. “Some of our personnel have been hired by Apple. They now work at Apple’s headquarters in San Jose, Calif.,” claimed one anonymous Samsung official, stating that Apple offers competitive benefits and large annual paychecks.
If Apple is entering the electric car arena, the company is pretty late to the game and will be looking to file patents. It has already filed a few, as you will see below. “As the electric vehicle business is a new one, Apple needs patents and experts in battery technology. Top human resources firms have been approaching Samsung’s battery experts, individually, and I think such human exchange moves are a win-win for both,” said the Samsung official.
It’s easy to write this off as an unconfirmed rumour, but it does fit in with a lawsuit that was filed earlier this month claiming that Apple engaged in an “aggressive campaign” to poach engineers from electric car battery maker A123 Systems.
The Register has also reported that Apple is reassigning workers to its car project at such a fast pace that other department leaders are beginning to complain about the loss of talent. Though Project Titan remains shrouded in mystery, reassigning such a number of staff from a variety of departments does point towards work on a significant scale, and possibly a move into a completely new industry.
What will the Apple Car feature?
While it’s tough at this stage to pinpoint key features of Apple’s upcoming vehicle, a report from Business Insider gives us a glimpse of what employees working on the project wanted the car to offer.
Per the report, Apple engineers contemplated featuring:
- Automatic doors that open and close silently
- An interior without a steering wheel or pedals (which would mean the car would have to be fully autonomous)
- Virtual- or augmented reality built into interior displays for entertainment purposes
- Spherical wheels that would allow the car to drive sideways
- Development of a more aesthetically pleasing driving system to replace the clunky lidar system used by other companies developing autonomous cars
Of course, the project has allegedly changed course since then so these features may not materialise for quite some time, but it’s not to say that Apple won’t go on to develop a car once it perfects the ‘CarOS’ system itself.
Apple’s in-car entertainment system plans
While many have suggested that Apple is working on an autonomous car (or a system to sell to other manufacturers), a report from Business Insider and comments from analyst Steven Milunovich suggest that something else could be in store for motoring fans.
BI recently discovered a secret Apple office in Berlin that is apparently devoted to transportation using engineers hired from car companies. But what if the company is working on more than just a car – what if it was developing an in-car entertainment system?
USB analyst Steven Milunovich discussed Project Titan with Horace Dediu and Neil Cybart and raised three issues:
- Transportation is bigger than IT and healthcare, two industries Apple is already deep in.
- Car ownership may plummet with autonomous driving.
- The company is building expertise in core sensor, driving and mapping technologies.
The most logical outcome? Project Titan “is likely to be a transportation platform – not a car, but the entire experience”, Milunovich remarked.
It’s an interesting idea; if cars in the future can drive themselves, what will the occupants be doing? It’s likely that passengers will require some form of entertainment, communications and apps to keep them occupied – something Apple provides with its other devices.
With all that on offer, the car will also require Wi-Fi, broadband connectivity, navigation information and its own operating system – all of which the company offers.
Combine that with rumours of an upcoming Siri-enabled smart speaker to rival Amazon’s hugely popular Alexa-powered Echo. It’s not hard to imagine a future where Siri controls and operates your car, providing you with an iOS-like user interface to interact with.
What is Apple’s competition doing?
Apple isn’t the only company interested in cars…
Google’s project is codenamed Waymo. The company says that it is “building the word’s most experienced driver” on a dedicated website here.
According to a Business Insider source in August 2017, the development of Apple’s autonomous driving technology is at the same stage as Google was three years ago. The source is said to be familiar with the technology of several autonomous car projects, and has seen Apple’s car technology first-hand.
The source claims that “Apple is just trying to play catch up” despite its initial strides in self-driving technology, suggesting that Apple’s car plans may not go as planned.
What will the Apple iCar look like?
If Apple does decide to develop a car to work with its autonomous driving system, will it have a similar look to Google’s driverless pod style cars? The answer is that no one knows for sure.
Apple goes to extreme lengths to protect the details of its products before release and we expect nothing different from the iCar. It’d be a cold day in hell before Apple drives its finished product around before the announcement!
Still, people often describe Apple products as beautiful – and we think that Apple will launch a car that people will fall in love with… if indeed it does launch a car.
Remember the car that Apple drove around back in 2015 that everyone suggested was autonomous, but was actually used to ‘improve Apple Maps’? It has been sighted once again, although with some notable differences.
The video shared on Twitter by @macjshiggins provides an up-close look at Apple’s hardware atop a Lexus SUV. It may be a relatively short video, but it gives us a glimpse at what the company is working on.
Going to need more than 140 characters to go over ?’s Project Titan. I call it “The Thing” pic.twitter.com/sLDJd7iYSa
— MacCallister Higgins (@macjshiggins)
October 17, 2017
Higgins, the poster of the video and the co-founder of another autonomous vehicle company called Voyage, says that the large rooftop hardware probably contains the “majority of the compute stack”. This is different from other autonomous vehicles, which usually house this hardware in the boot of the car.
It also makes it much easier to transfer the tech between vehicles, an ideal situation while testing the tech across multiple vehicles.
Motoring website TopSpeed has created a speculative rendering of what it imagines the iCar will look like. While this is in no way confirmation that Apple is designing the car, or this is the route that it’ll take, it’s interesting to see what those in the automotive industry imagine Apple’s high-tech electric car will look like.
Plus, a glowing Apple badge would look pretty cool, right?
Apple iCar: Patents
It’s not that Apple hasn’t filed patents in this area. It would appear that the research and development arm of Apple has been researching automotive technology for over a decade with most being discovered by Cult Of Mac.
One such patent, filed in 2011, would allow you to unlock your car and start your engine from an iDevice such as your iPhone or iPad.
Another interesting patent, filed in 2009, shows a design with in-car camera technology – what it was intended for is anyone’s guess, but we can speculate that it could be used to detect hand gestures that could control car functions, such as the locking system or headlights.
This early 2012 patent concentrates on the configuration of the vehicle. It tries to solve the problem of how multiple people can all use one car but still be comfortable. The answer that Apple came up with? Use an iPhone to program user preferences from seat position to ideal temperature to favourite radio stations – similar (but not so advanced) to what Range Rover does with memorising the drivers favourite seat position in its Sport model.
Apple goes one step further with this patent – you could theoretically get in someone else’s car and have the same preferences you have in your car instantly set for you.
Another patent describes using the iPhone’s geo-location abilities to monitor and control certain car functions based on geofences. The idea is to utilise the signals sent from your iPhone to, for example, unlock your car as you approach it and lock it as you walk away. Other functions for this patent could include opening the boot when you stand at the rear of the car – a function that would definitely come in handy when shopping!
The most recent patent, which was published in August 2017, describes a system that utilises Bluetooth sensors for car-to-car communication. The sensors could, in theory, communicate with nearby cars, sensors and a GPS system to update the drivers’ dashboard to indicate obstacles like cars in your blind spot, or nearby emergency vehicles.
The patent doesn’t describe the tech as a self-driving car, it instead compares it to a more advanced version of parking sensors and blind-spot assists available on cars in production today.
Apple iCar rumours: Pricing
Though no solid pricing has been announced, we can take a look at Tesla’s latest car and speculate that the iCar would be a similar price – as the two companies are apparently now automotive industry rivals.
Tesla’s 2015 Model S, the company’s latest electric car offering costs a whopping £67,980 with the “tech pack”, something that we imagine an iCar would come with as standard. If Tesla is the benchmark, then the iCar certainly won’t be cheap but will be a thing of beauty.
A team of tech analysts from Jefferies & Co have thrown their hats in the ring, suggesting what they predict will be the price of the Apple’s iCar. The team suggested that the iCar is likely to have a price tag of around $55,000, which translates to around £36,000 at the time of writing. That makes it almost half the price of Tesla’s Model S in the UK, which could give the fruit shaped company a much-needed advantage in the electric car industry.