Apple’s plans for autonomous cars: what we know and what we don’t

autonomous car

Apple has apparently confirmed that it does have a plan for an autonomous car, after sending the US NHTSA a letter. Saying that it was investing heavily in machine-learning and autonomous systems, Apple still hasn’t clarified what exactly it will be making and selling – only adding to the confusing reports of the demise of Project Titan that have appeared in the past few weeks.

Branded the worst kept secret in Silicon Valley, Apple’s Titan automotive division has (from the outside at least) changed focus a couple of times, scaled up, scaled down, and last we heard been mothballed. Apple hasn’t acknowledged the division, and it was never clear if it was building a complete vehicle, the navigation functions for IP-licensing, or just a software framework to expand on its smartphone presence.

This letter doesn’t do much to bring clarity, but it does publicly acknowledge Apple’s plans to expand further into cars. Its CarPlay software is currently offered to automakers wanting to incorporate a driver’s iPhone into the car’s in-vehicle infotainment system (IVI), but most automakers are reluctant to hand over the keys to their kingdom to Apple or Google (via Android Auto) – as they would lose control of their brand in the vehicle, as well as access to potentially lucrative data.

The machine-learning investment can be interpreted as a machine-vision and image-recognition strategy for self-driving cars, but could also be as mundane as a way of better analyzing swipes on touchscreens from IVI platforms. However, it seems that the “autonomous systems” investment is a clearer indicator that Apple is getting involved in the vehicles themselves.

The letter to the NHTSA is essentially an advocacy plea, hoping to secure better testing and development environments for entrants from outside the automotive market. Apple argues that these incumbents have an unfair advantage when it comes to regulatory approval and compliance, and that new entrants should be treated equally – but these automotive mainstays would argue that their position is built on a long history of safe testing practices (with the agile world of Silicon Valley would view as over-cautious and burdensome).

Apple calls for companies to share data from incidents on the roads, so that developers can collaborate to create better products. It does tow the company line regarding user privacy, however, noting that the auto industry and regulators should address the privacy concerns stemming from telematics and user data collection.

In terms of Silicon Valley upstarts in automotive, Google (Alphabet) is definitely in the lead, with extensive testing and a pretty large fleet of cars on the road. Depending on the success of its Model 3, Tesla could be the first major new entrant into the auto industry, and would be notable for its roots in California rather than Detroit, but the company is facing pressure for its Autopilot strategy.

Intel is another tech name that is expanding into automotive, looking to diversify from its data center core business, but its GPU-based rival Nvidia is also targeting automotive with its Drive PX boards – aiming to provide the compute horsepower to allow for autonomous navigation.

Written by Alex Davies | First published  at ReTHINK IoT

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