Clues About Apple’s Self-Driving Plans?

November 23rd, 2017

Apple and self-driving cars have been in the news ever since the existence of Project Titan was revealed. This was a program that, at first, was believed to represent an attempt to design an autonomous vehicle of some sort, perhaps an electric car in the spirit of a Tesla. The alleged testing facility was said to be located near its original corporate headquarters in Cupertino, CA.

But it appears that the possibility of a motor vehicle went by the wayside, as the original staff of 1,000 people was thinned, and leadership was changed amid reports of turmoil. Long-time hardware executive Bob Mansfield reportedly took over the project with a scaled down goal of building a reference  platform that would integrate with iOS.

In April of this year, Apple received permission from the California DMV to begin to test a network of specially modified Lexus RX450h SUVs so that self-driving technology could be tested on public roads.

Of course Google is also conducting such tests. Uber, the world’s largest ride hailing company, has acquired Volvo SUVs for its autonomous vehicle project. I’ve seen some of them on the roads in and around Tempe, AZ. Since my income-producing pursuits include an Uber side gig, I once picked up a Uber employee whose job was to ride along and keep tabs on one of those self-driving Volvos. He didn’t have much in the way of insights to offer during the short trip, but it’s clear the company is serious about autonomous driving.

And, no doubt, to put its human drivers out of work some day. But maybe I’ll be too old to care.

Normally Apple doesn’t say a lot about the technologies on which it’s working, but there are hints from time to time. Amid rumors that Apple might offer its own smart TV set, or a TV subscription service, Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed the company was interested in the living room. None of that has happened, though, and the current Apple TV 4K doesn’t appear to have moved the needle very much.

With it comes to motor vehicles, Cook has admitted, “We’re focusing on autonomous systems. 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 actually to work on.”

Of course, once DMV approval was requested, the cat was out of the bag, that something is actually under development.

But what? Is it a technology package that will be offered to auto makers to integrate into their own vehicles? Or is Apple still testing the waters without an end game in mind? Could there still be an Apple Car in our future?

It all becomes more fascinating with a Reuters report that, “Research by Apple Inc computer scientists on how self-driving cars can better spot cyclists and pedestrians while using fewer sensors has been posted online, in what appears to be the company’s first publicly disclosed paper on autonomous vehicles.”

Now when you consider Apple’s usual approach to such matters, which is to operate under deep security, this news, if true, appears to represent a shift in the company’s approach. Obviously being able to detect humans moving about, so the vehicle can avoid striking them, is one of the most critical functions of one of these systems.

According to the report, Apple’s research team claimed “highly encouraging results” during simulations. That is certainly not the same thing as achieving similar results in a live setting, where “highly encouraging” isn’t quite the same as 100% success. Obviously there is no room for error, and autonomous test vehicles have humans on board to take over should the complicated systems of computers and sensors lose its way, or is in danger of causing an accident.

This is something that tech commentator Peter Cohen talks about on an upcoming episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where we discuss a moral dilemma that such AI systems might confront. What if a collision was unavoidable, and the system is has to consider the inevitability of causing serious injury to different people in different vehicles. What choice would it make? Would it be the collision that it believed would harm the least number of people? Would it attempt to match the faces with government databases to see who deserved to live because they were more famous, had a higher income-earning potential, or perhaps a larger family to support? Or is that too sci-fi?

If the expected accident involved either a vehicle or a pedestrian, surely the latter would be the responsible choice. But what about an accident that might injure someone’s pet?

The problem with self-driving is not just keeping up with traffic, staying in lane and stopping for red lights and stop signs. There are loads of split-second decisions that have to be made to avoid striking moving or stationary objects or living people. Even if the AI is absolutely perfect in every respect, how does it cope with imperfect human drivers, particularly those who are driving while under the influence?

Again, what is Apple’s goal with Project Titan? Is an Apple Car a pipedream? If a fully-functioning autonomous driving system is developed, how will it be marketed? Does Apple license it to different automakers? Remember, it’s not just the integration of sensors and software. It would involve managing the core driving systems of the vehicle, which would likely have to be modified to support Apple’s reference platform.

So what’s the point of this disclosure, or is it designed to tempt auto makers, demonstrate to them that Apple is on the case and will some day reach its goal?

Or will Apple simply offer the technology without cost to auto makers, with the expectation that it’ll allow iOS gear to tightly integrate with the cars and thus sell more gear? Remember that with CarPlay — and Android Auto for that matter — you’re simply casting some of your smartphone’s features to the vehicle’s infotainment system. That’s not even close to integrating a self-driving system that controls every movement the vehicle makes.

Loads of questions, few answers, other than to make me more curious than ever about what Apple is planning.

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