Google may be 3 years ahead of Apple in autonomous car tech

26 Aug 2017


While tech giants Apple and Google are both fully committed to developing autonomous or self-driving cars, this is one race where Google seems to be well ahead.

Apple's autonomous driving technology is at about the stage where Google's self-driving car project "was three years ago", according to a widely-quoted Business Insider report citing a person who has seen Apple's tech and is familiar with the technology of several other autonomous car frontrunners.

"Apple is just trying to play catch up," this person said.

But as Autoevolution points out, this is actually not bad, considering that Google has been involved in this research since 2009, making it one of the first to start working on self-driving technology in the entire industry and giving it several years' head-start.

The first vehicles it used, the electric bubble-cars called Firefly, have outgrown their purpose and have since been replaced by an extensive fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans which join the existing Lexus RS-450h SUVs.

Nobody knows for sure when Apple started work on its Titan project, but the first time the press got news of it was about two years ago. And back then it was believed the Cupertino-based tech giant was only working on an electric car.

Companies such as Uber and Tesla and traditional automakers such as GM are all developing autonomous driving technology. But Google's project, now spun out into its own company called Waymo, is by many accounts the furthest along in self-driving technology.

Apple is a relatively recent entrant to the field. But despite some of the strides the company has made in self-driving technology, it remains far behind some of its rivals.

Apple's car project is part of the company's Special Project Team and it famously scaled back its ambitions for a self-driving car late last year.

Apple had originally planned to build its own automobile. The company enlisted a sprawling team of engineers to rethink every detail of today's car, such as replacing traditional car wheels with spherical wheels, ditching the gas pedal, and adding virtual reality into internal displays, reports The New York Times.

In July 2016, the Special Projects team was reorganised under a new leader, Bob Mansfield. Layoffs ensued and, under Mansfield, Apple shifted course away from the idea of building its own car. The unit is now focused on developing "autonomous systems" Tim Cook told Bloomberg's Emily Chang in June.

Internally, the Apple car project is still feeling the results of the reorg and is still suffering from some confusion of purpose, but it is hiring again, says Business Insider. It is specifically seeking out people with autonomous vehicle software experience. With over 250 companies and startups working on self-driving cars these days, competition for talent is fierce, but there's also plenty of poaching ground.

PAIL for employees
To test its autonomous technology, Apple is operating a commuter car service for employees codenamed PAIL - short for "Palo Alto to Infinite Loop" - that ferries staff between Apple's campus and the nearby town of Palo Alto, California, according to The New York Times.

PAIL is likely based on a Lexus RX450h SUV per photos Bloomberg posted of an Apple test car in the spring. Earlier this year, Apple registered three Lexus SUVs as self-driving cars in the state of California.

This is similar to how Google's self-driving cars began, by shuttling employees around the Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California.

By 2014 - the point in the development of Google's technology that Apple has now reached - the company's self-driving car technology still suffered from many constraints. Speaking in 2014, Google's then-head of autonomous cars said that Google's vehicles could not detect open manholes on the streets or "see" a stoplight that was in front of a bright sun. The cars could easily be fooled by road construction zones and could not tell the difference between a crumbled piece of paper or a more dangerous obstacle littering the road.

According to the source that Business Insider spoke with, Apple is creating its autonomous systems with an eye to the ride-sharing and ride-hailing market but that Apple has no plans at this point to go it alone and try to become the next Uber.

"Even if they have this [autonomous vehicle] specialty, and they get to a mature point on it, they don't have the operations expertise. It's the same thing that Waymo is facing," this person said.

So, Apple will be leaning on partnerships with ride-hailing services to help it turn this technology into a new business. Apple has apparently already geared up for that. Last year Apple invested $1 billion into Uber's Chinese competitor Didi Chuxing and has a seat on its board.

Similarly, Waymo has partnered with Lyft.

Should Uber get through its current leadership crises by hiring a new chief executive who rebuilds the firm's damaged reputation, Business Insider's source person believes that Apple could be open to a partnership with Uber as well.

Uber is also creating its own self-driving car technology. And it is currently locked in bitter litigation with Waymo over self-driving car technology. Even so, Uber's self-driving technology unit is still hiring, and Uber's board continues to support the project.

Apple declined to comment.

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