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Apple finally confirms it is working on self-driving car technology

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13/06/2017 Alex Hern
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Apple has finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in Silicon Valley: it’s working on self-driving car technology.

“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,”chief executive Tim Cook told Bloomberg News. “Clearly one purpose of autonomous systems is self-driving cars. There are others.

“We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects,” Cook added. “It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on.”

However Cook declined to elaborate on what, exactly, Apple intended to use the tech for. “We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do, but we are being straightforward that it’s a core technology that we view as very important.”

‘We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects,’ said Tim Cook.: ‘We see it as the mother of all AI projects,’ said Tim Cook. © PA ‘We see it as the mother of all AI projects,’ said Tim Cook.

The news that the company is working on a self-driving car will come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. It’s even confirmed as much itself, in regulatory filings necessary to earn it permission to test the vehicles on public roads. In December, Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, wrote to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: “The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.”

But the key question that still goes unanswered is whether Apple is building an actual car, or merely the technology required to make a self-driving car work in partnership with a traditional manufacturer. Its hiring for the plan, which is known internally as Project Titan, suggests that it has at least considered the former option, bringing on experts in manufacturing and vehicle design as well as machine vision and automation engineers.

Whichever route it decides to go down, it will be arriving late to the field, according to analysts. “They were slow to begin testing autonomous systems, and they now have a considerable innovation gap to close,” says ABI Research’s James Hodgson. “Previous attempts by Apple to address personal mobility and automation have been marred by high turnover in specialist staff.

“In addition, previous talks with BMW and Daimler allegedly broke down over data protection and control,” Hodgson added. “It seems Apple has decided that developing their own autonomous system is preferable to partnering.” 

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