What we think we know about the mythical Apple Car (updated)
Apple began poaching engineers from Tesla around 2015 and work now continues to develop all the components that drive the project. Reuters now says we may see the first Apple cars debut in 2024 (subject to the COVID-19 disaster factor, and maybe later given more recent statements from mythical Apple analyst, Ming-Chi Kuo).
What do we think we know about the Apple Car?
Apple has solved the car key problem
Apple already offers Car key. This lets you unlock some cars as you approach them carrying your iPhone or Apple Watch. Climb inside and the vehicle starts up, though you can also require a passcode or Face ID on your device to invoke the ignition system. This technology is already here. You can even share the car keys.
Design is more than skin deep
It’s possible that one of Apple’s early lessons in the multi-year Apple Car project might have been that when it comes to vehicles, design is more complex than how a car looks. Vehicles need battery and propulsion systems, brakes, seats, safety systems, transmissions and more. Electric vehicles need sophisticated battery systems and (hopefully even Apple understands) the capacity to accept a charge from any available roadside charging system – so please make this cable interoperable.
Numerous patents suggest Apple is considering design at the deepest level. Here are just a few spotted across the last year by Patently Apple.
While all of these were filed at an earlier juncture, that this deluge of vehicle tech-related patents emerged within the last six months is a big hint at the extent of the effort Apple is applying to the project. As you can see, they cover a lot of ground:
- Hazard Detection Sensors
- Holographic and Light-based HUD display patents.
- AR windshield capable of road sign translation.
- Vehicle suspension and braking systems.
- Climate control.
- Automated steering.
- Adjustable window tinting and defrosting systems
- LiDAR-based realtime 3D mapping and navigation systems.
- Vehicle to vehicle communication systems
Apple may have avoided reinventing the wheel, but it still seems to want to pimp your ride.
Music, entertainment, media and more
“Hey Siri, put the kid’s channel on in the back through their AirPods, set the air conditioning, read me my news headlines and play my driving playlist up front. Also please give me directions to AOC’s house, avoiding Karens.”
“Hey Siri, I forgot, also set me to Driving mode.”
Those fabulous CarPod audio speakers and the Retina displays in the back seat will kick into action immediately, while your intelligent heated seats will adjust position and temperature for the occupant.
From voice news headlines in News+ to Apple’s TV, display and audio channels and beyond, Apple already has a host of goodies for vehicles, and while CarPlay still feels like a compromised version of what’s possible it’s clear the company could accomplish more if it had free reign.
It already has the road map.
Vehicle testing and battery life
We know Apple is working on an intelligent vehicle control system – it already has a fleet of self-driving cars on the road. We also know this because back in 2016 we heard a bunch of cover stories designed to distract us from watching Apple’s work on vehicles by telling us the company had stopped doing so, we were told it was still exploring self-driving technologies to sell to automotive companies.
That takes testing.
While Apple already has a fleet of such cars on the road, it isn’t booking the most hours according to California’s DMV, though it’s quite possible the company is conducting testing outside the U.S.
The latest Reuters report says it now plans to produce a passenger vehicle including “monocell” battery technology starting in around 2024. (Though the report warns it may instead choose to offer an autonomous driving system to another manufacturer).
What that breakthrough battery tech might be is harder to imagine, but I imagine it will provide plenty of miles per watt and, the report suggests, will also be safer than Lithium-ion batteries used elsewhere. We recently heard TSMC is working with STMicroelectronics on this part of the project, which should also see the cost of such batteries “radically” reduced.
(Apple) intel inside
The M1 chip is really good. The next iteration will be better. In 2024, Apple Silicon will be running multiple cores on 3nm chips capable of holding their own at the high end of computational performance.
What we’ve seen of the performance of the M1 chips from MacBook Air, Pro and Mac mini tells us that when you pop the processors inside systems that possess good cooling systems (like a car) you can clock performance right up. We also know the pro Macs are coming in 2021-2 – machines quite capable of handling the most demanding computational tasks.
We already know the company is packing machine learning support on the SoC, and has been engaged in a huge amount of development around machine imaging, LiDAR and AI.
That extends to identifying humans in a landscape, important for photography, but even more important when your vehicle is hurtling down a narrow road at 100mph in the dark.
It is quite clear that Apple’s development focus for the project is now coalescing around AI, given a recent move to put SVP Machine Learning and AI Strategy, John Giannandrea in charge. Apple began speaking with LiDAR manufacturers for cars in early 2019.
On AI, Ming-Chi Kuo wrote:
“One of our biggest concerns about Apple Car is that when Apple Car is launched, the current self-driving car brands will have accumulated at least five years of big data and be conducive to deep learning/AI. How does Apple, a latecomer, overcome this lagging gap?”
I’ve a feeling we only know part of the story on that. Think about it this way, Apple already has Maps, which helps it gather data on how people drive. How much of that information is data competitors in the space need to build from scratch?
Connectivity, networking & ethics
While Apple is most certainly nurturing expertise in LiDAR and machine vision intelligence, we don’t yet know the extent to which its collision detection and self-driving systems are ready for prime time.
Nor can we tell what kind of connectivity Apple has in mind. Is mmwave/5G sufficiently reliable for vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication systems? How effective is 5G in a tunnel?
We do know Apple is developing its own 5G chips which will conceivably have potential future use in cars baked inside, and it seems highly probable the location aware U1 processor will form part of this element of the response.
These systems will rely on a huge array of external and internal-facing sensors and will require the kind of intelligence to process and act upon all that information effectively, efficiently and safely in real time.
Interoperability may become a problem. Will the self-driving collision detection system in a Tesla play nice with the system in an Apple Car? That’s quite a serious question, and like so much innovation, real world deployment may be delayed by the extent to which companies developing next-generation systems are willing to commit to interoperability between vehicles, particularly during an emergency.
Finally, there’s difficult questions around safety; In the event a smart vehicle must decide between two poor alternatives in an emergency situation, who is liable? The driver, or the developer of the in-car software that caused the vehicle to plough into an innocent party in order to protect the life of the vehicle’s occupants?
Apple still has a lot of work to do, but many of the pieces of this jigsaw seem to be falling into place.
Updated: More recent comment from Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.