Way 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 suggests 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 below evidence and decide for yourselves.
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.
Apple files patent for climate control in vehicles
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.”
Apple exec outlines self-driving car projects
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.
Apple scientists publish research on self-driving cars
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.
Apple hires BlackBerry engineers for autonomous car OS project in Canada
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].”
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.
Tim Cook on Apple Car rumours
It takes a lot for the CEO of a company to openly discuss rumours surrounding their own upcoming products, especially when it’s the CEO of a secretive company like Apple. However, as unlikely as it seems, Tim Cook has recently teased the media about the possibility of an Apple Car in the future. While he didn’t directly comment on the likelihood of an Apple Car, during a recent interview with Fortune, 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.
Could Apple be working on a Transportation System?
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.
Tim Cook confirms Apple is working on autonomous driving project
After years of silence from Apple about its plans for driverless technology and the possibility of an iCar, Apple CEO Tim Cook has sat down with Bloomberg to discuss the newest project at the company: 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.
Source claims Apple’s car tech is ‘where Google was three years ago’
According to a Business Insider source, 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.
Head over to page 2 for a possible release date rumours, feature rumours, design rumours and car-related Apple patents.