Apple’s ambitious plan to build its own full-fledged autonomous car might not have gone as planned, but the company is still very much interested in developing the self-driving technology. It has been testing the autonomous driving systems using Lexus vehicles on California roads for months. Now it wants to test its technology away from the public eye, so it’s leasing the proving grounds in Arizona that was previously owned by Chrysler.
Apple to test its autonomous car at the Arizona proving grounds
Sources familiar with the matter told Jalopnik that Apple was leasing proving grounds in Surprise, Arizona to test the self-driving vehicles. The facility is spread over 3,000 acres of fenced land and nearly 5,000 acres in total. The proving grounds includes a wide variety of roads designed to replicate different driving conditions. It includes a city traffic course, a high-speed oval, areas for wet weather testing, and steep grades.
Chrysler had originally opened the facility to test the impact of high temperatures on vehicles and their components. The automaker also used to test the corrosion and wear effects on cars by forcing them through mud, dirt, and gravel, added Jalopnik. More than a decade ago, Chrysler sold the property to a real estate developer for $312 million. The proving grounds has been lying unused for years.
Is Route 14 Investment Partners linked to Apple?
Sources told Jalopnik that Apple had been hiring automobile test engineers and technicians from other proving grounds in Arizona to test its own autonomous car. Jalopnik points out that SFI Grand Vista LLC, which owned the property, signed an agreement last year to lease the proving grounds to a company called Route 14 Investment Partners LLC. The agreement says that Route 14 could use the site for “all prior and current experimental and proving ground” purposes.
It is unclear how Route 14 Investment is related to Apple, but it’s no secret that Apple had formed many shell companies to keep its autonomous car project a secret. Route 14 is registered to the Corporation Trust Company, and was incorporated in Delaware in 2015. The only known link is that Apple has a dropbox at the Corporation Trust Company’s headquarters.
In the last few years, Arizona has become a hub for companies developing the self-driving car technology. Uber has already been testing its autonomous taxis in the state. Alphabet’s Waymo also runs a driverless car pilot program in Phoenix. Apple needs a large space to test its novel autonomous car technologies in the real world.
Apple scientists develop technology to detect pedestrians
Earlier this month, Apple scientists Yin Zhou and Oncel Tuzel published a research paper in the online journal arXiv, discussing a new technology that could detect pedestrians and cyclists on the road more accurately. The research paper offered a rare glimpse into Apple’s autonomous car development project. Currently, most autonomous cars use LiDAR technology to detect 3D objects. But LiDAR cannot detect small objects that are far away.
The new technology proposed by Apple scientists, dubbed VoxelNet, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify objects on the road. VoxelNet performed far better than LiDAR in detecting pedestrians and cyclists. But the new technology has only been tested in computer simulations. Apple might be leasing the proving grounds in Arizona to test VoxelNet on actual roads.
Apple CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg earlier this year that the company was focusing on developing the autonomous car system rather than a full-fledged car. Describing it as the “mother of all AI projects,” he said Apple was approaching autonomous driving from a core technology point of view.
Apple spent years developing a self-driving car under the Project Titan, but the program fell into disarray due to the lack of clarity of vision and the departure of key executives. At one point, it was exploring many unique technologies such as using spherical wheels that could allow better lateral movements. However, the company has since scaled back its efforts to focus on the self-driving technology.
Apple’s autonomous car prototype spotted in California
In April, Apple secured the permit to test its autonomous driving prototypes on public roads in California. The tech giant has been testing the technology using three Lexus RX 450h SUVs and six drivers who monitor the vehicles during testing. Last month, a video appeared on Twitter showing almost all the sensors placed on the roof of the Lexus vehicle.
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
The setup consisted of six Velodyne LiDAR sensors, multiple radar units, and a variety of camera sensors. The computer stack that interprets data collected by sensors was also placed on the roof. Most other autonomous cars have the computer stacks in their trunk.
Industry experts believe that the self-driving technology would significantly reduce the number of car accidents. Car accidents kill more than a million people every year.