Last year when the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) permitted Apple to test its autonomous driving systems on public roads, the iPhone maker had registered just three Lexus RX450h SUVs for testing. Apple’s fleet of self-driving cars has grown from just three to 27 in less than a year, according to Bloomberg. However, Apple’s fleet is still much smaller than that of Waymo (Google).
All vehicles in Apple’s self-driving car fleet are Lexus RX450h models
The California DMV told Bloomberg that Apple had registered another 24 Lexus RX450h SUVs after the initial three that were registered in April 2017. It’s a huge expansion for a company lagging behind rivals in developing the self-driving car technology. According to the report, Apple started adding new cars in July last year. The tech giant added two SUVs in July, seven in October, two in November, six in December, and seven in January.
Apple had leased the first three Lexus RX450h vehicles from Hertz rather than purchasing them directly Lexus. It is unclear whether the new vehicles were also leased from Hertz. Interestingly, all the vehicles in Apple’s self-driving fleet are from Lexus. Technology companies working on self-driving car systems have shown a preference for Lexus vehicles because they can easily be customized with aftermarket sensors.
If Apple is really interested in developing the autonomous car technology, testing with just 27 vehicles is not enough. Tasha Keeney, an analyst at ARK Invest, told the Mercury News that “scale really matters” when you are working on autonomous cars. You have to feed tons of data to your AI software to help make it better, more accurate decisions. Driving data could be one of the reasons Apple has invested $1 billion in Chinese ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing.
Apple should combine self-driving with enhanced infotainment
Apple’s self-driving car fleet is tiny in comparison to that of Google’s Waymo. Waymo is currently testing autonomous vehicles in six states, including with 600 Chrysler vans in Arizona and Detroit. Waymo vehicles have also been frequently spotted roaming the streets around San Francisco. A report in November last year claimed that Waymo vehicles had racked up more than four million miles on public roads in the United States.
Keeney said if Apple finds itself lagging behind rivals, it could pivot from just building the autonomous driving systems to providing improved infotainment experience for drivers. Since the software will take care of driving responsibilities, drivers will no longer have to keep their eyes on the road at all times. Keeney believes Apple is at least a couple of years behind Waymo, but it still has tons of opportunities in the in-car infotainment space.
Apple car spottings
Apple’s self-driving cars have been spotted many times on public roads in California since last year. In October, Voyage co-founder MacCallister Higgins spotted Apple’s customized Lexus SUV in the wild. The vehicle was outfitted with tons of hardware and third-party sensors. Higgins said it consisted of six Velodyne-made LIDAR sensors, multiple cameras, and a variety of radar units to detect nearby objects. All of them were beautifully encased in white plastic on the roof of the SUV.
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
Higgins said at the time that Apple had placed the “majority of the compute stack” on the roof alongside other sensors. The compute stacks are responsible for interpreting data collected by sensors. Most other autonomous car operators arrange the high-powered compute stacks in the trunks of their vehicles.
Where is the Project Titan headed?
The Cupertino company has been working on autonomous cars for years under the Project Titan. According to the rumor mill, it was originally planning to build a full-fledged Apple-branded self-driving car. The company had hired over a thousand engineers from other automakers. But the project faced multiple challenges due to the lack of focus and technical issues. After that, Apple shifted its focus from developing a full-fledged car to building the autonomous driving systems first.
Apple CEO Tim Cook said in July last year that the company was “focusing on autonomous systems” instead of building an Apple-branded car. He described autonomous driving as the “mother of all AI projects.” Apple researchers have filed several patents since last year related to safety, navigation, and machine learning for self-driving.
It is too early to say what the eventual outcome of Apple’s car project would be. It could develop the autonomous driving technology, and then partner with an established automaker to build cars. Or it could license its self-driving technology to multiple automakers. But that’s not how Apple does things. The company usually controls all the aspects of its products. It controls both the hardware and software for its iPhones, iPads, and Macs. It might do something similar with the car project. Some industry analysts believe that Apple could design its own car once it has developed the autonomous driving technology.