Technology

Here’s A Close Look At The Apple Car Autonomous System

Despite tons of leaks and rumors about Apple’s secretive Project Titan, it remains kind of a mystery. There is little clarity on whether Apple will stick to just the self-driving car technology or would build a full-fledged car. What we do know for now is that the tech giant is developing autonomous driving systems under the Project Titan. Apple CEO Tim Cook has described the self-driving technology as the “mother of all AI projects.” Now a noted self-driving expert has given us an incredibly close look at the Apple car autonomous systems.

Apple Car Autonomous Systems
Image Source: MacCallister Higgins / Twitter (screenshot)

Voyage co-founder confident that it’s the Apple car autonomous system

It’s difficult even for a company as secretive as Apple to keep such a big project a secret when you are testing vehicles on public roads. MacCallister Higgins, the co-founder of self-driving car startup Voyage, tweeted a short video showing the Apple car autonomous systems placed on the roof of a Lexus vehicle. Higgins’ startup Voyage recently launched its pilot ride-hailing project in San Jose.

MacCallister Higgins sure knows a thing or two (or a lot more) about the self-driving technology. The Lexus test vehicle shown in the video is outfitted with a range of sensors and other hardware at the roof. He told CNet that he spotted Apple’s test vehicle at the intersection of De La Cruz and the Central Expressway in Sunnyvale, California. Apple’s test vehicles have been spotted on California roads many times in the past, but Higgins’ video gives us the closest look at the roof-mounted Apple car autonomous systems.

Apple takes a modular design approach with self-driving systems

Higgins referred to the test vehicle as “The Thing,” probably because of its bulky appearance. He believes the “majority of the compute stack” was positioned on the roof along with the sensors. Most other self-driving car operators stuff the high-powered computing stacks in the trunks. The compute stacks are responsible for interpreting the data collected by sensors.

The Apple car autonomous system consisted of six Velodyne-made LiDAR sensors, multiple camera sensors, and a number of radar units. All of them are carefully housed in white plastic that reflects Apple’s design philosophy. Interestingly, the vehicle spotted by Higgins looks slightly different from the ones spotted in the past. It is a newer Lexus RX body style.

Placing the self-driving systems on the roof is an interesting design choice. It reduces the in-vehicle modifications. Since enabling the self-driving technology is as easy as bolting the roof rack to the car, Apple could easily switch test cars in the future. The tech giant has indicated that it is focused on developing the self-driving technology. The modular design of the autonomous systems would allow Apple to sell it to as many automakers as possible.

Soon after Higgins shared the video, one of his Twitter followers shared a picture of a Lexus SUV with the same setup. This vehicle was seen at one of Apple’s campus shuttle stops. Back in August, the New York Times had claimed that Apple was using its autonomous systems on a shuttle bus to transport employees from one campus to another.

Apple unlikely to stop at self-driving systems

Earlier this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) granted Apple permit to test self-driving cars on public roads. The tech giant was allowed to test its technology using three 2015 Lexus RX450h vehicles equipped with various sensors and cameras. While the company claims it is developing the self-driving technology, there have been clear indications that Apple is testing the waters in other aspects of a car as well.

The tech giant has invested $1 billion in China-based ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing. It has also signed an agreement with Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) to develop batteries for electric vehicles. It indicates that Apple’s automobile ambitions aren’t limited to self-driving technology. Battery efficiency is one of the biggest challenges in the EV industry. Tesla has spent years developing batteries that offer a respectable range.

CATL is among the world’s largest suppliers of batteries for electric trucks, electric buses, electric cars, and stationary energy storage solutions. It aims to ramp up its output to 50GWh in the next three years. CATL could help Apple build electric vehicles with an impressive range. It’s not in Apple’s DNA to develop only one part of a product. It has a habit of controlling all the aspects of a product be it the iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

The same is expected to be the case with the Project Titan. The Cupertino company has already launched the CarPlay infotainment system. It is developing the Apple car autonomous systems, and is working with CATL on battery technology. Wall Street analysts believe that it would eventually put all the pieces together to launch an Apple-branded full-fledged car.

Automakers as well as tech titans such as Google and Apple are investing heavily in self-driving technologies. Autonomous driving is estimated to reduce or eliminate the more than one million deaths caused by car accidents every year. Apple owns patents for a vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology that could eliminate the car crashes.