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Apple confirms it’s developing autonomous car technology

By Abdul Montaqim

Apple CEO Tim Cook has confirmed that the tech giant is working on software for self-driving cars, according to Bloomberg

Cook calls the development effort “the mother of all AI projects”.

Apple has been rumoured to be working on building a driverless car for some time, but the company has never directly confirmed anything. 

Apple CEO Tim Cook at WWDC last week
Apple CEO Tim Cook at WWDC last week

It’s been reported in the past that Apple has visited German automaker BMW’s factories, acquired permits to test autonomous vehicles in the US, and sent letters to US governmental authorities in support of the technology in general – all of which more or less confirmed its interest in self-driving cars, but this is the first time any official confirmation has been uttered.

Cook told Bloomberg: “We’re focusing on autonomous systems. 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 actually to work on.”

Apple is not known for its speed to market, and probably finds itself lagging in the race to develop driverless car technology – that’s without knowing what the company has already developed in secret.

What’s publicly known is that Google has been going on endlessly about what looked like the musings of billionaires with nothing better to do when the search giant first demonstrated its idea in around 2009.

Early iterations of the contraption looked like they were cobbled together as a bit of a laugh, but the company persevered through the scepticism and has launched what looks like a friendly “bubble car” as it might have been called in the past.

autonomous vehicle enacted_legislation
Image courtesy of NCSL

Autonomous cars – in fact – have a long history, but they are still not allowed on the roads unless they are for testing purposes. Around 17 states in the US and many countries worldwide are now updating legislation to accommodate this new, automotive equivalent of witchcraft, but mostly as test projects.

As well as Google, numerous other companies are now developing autonomous cars – including all the big, auto giants which everyone would be familiar with, such as BMW, Mercedes, General Motors, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and so on.

And not without good reason, nor a moment too soon. The traditional automakers may have shared widespread general scepticism of self-driving technology at first, but now they’re virtually falling over themselves to develop not only autonomous technology but also electric vehicles – because apparently that’s what the future is.

This prediction is confirmed by the words and actions of Planet Earth’s apparent futurist-in-chief Elon Musk, whose Tesla car company has come out of nowhere to overtake BMW and become the fourth-largest carmaker by market capitalisation in the world.

tesla car

Tesla’s cars (one model pictured above) are known for running on electricity – batteries – but fewer people may be aware they they sport advanced self-driving capabilities.

All this is not to say that what might be called “traditional” car companies have a huge amount of catching up to – they have been developing something which the industry calls “advanced driver assistance systems”, or ADAS.

ADAS is already in many new cars and its functions include autonomous braking, autonomous parking and cruise control, to name just some. And although ADAS is meant to be an assistive technology, it’s autonomous car technology in all but name.

Apple, too, is quite active in the car market, in that it has a product called something CarPlay, which is an entertainment system integrated into the car and is capable of syncing with iPhones and iPads and generally acting like an iOS device.

apple carplay

How CarPlay (pictured above) will develop – or has already been developed in secret – is anyone’s guess. Most observers predict that autonomous tech will combine with ride-hailing tech and electric power trains to take over the world, and certainly Apple has not been able to keep its enthusiasm for the prospect totally hidden.

A few months ago, Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in which he wrote that Apple was “investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation”.

Now, Cook has confirmed Apple’s interest in the sector, but he acknowledged there will be challenges ahead and crucial decisions will need to be made.

“There is a major disruption looming there,” he told Bloomberg TV. “You’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.

“We’ll see where it takes us. We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.”

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