Apple: Closer to its own self-driving car?

Apple Article - August 24 2018.jpg

Although it recently became the first publicly traded U.S. company to reach a market capitalisation of $1 trillion, Apple's plans on joining the host of tech companies that take a stab at creating their own autonomous vehicle are not yet clear. 

Internally dubbed the "Project Titan", Apple's self-driving car operations have come under intense scrutiny over the past few months. At first, it was the poaching of Mr. John Giannandrea and Ms. Jaime Waydo from Waymo. Then, there was the filing of an array of AV-related patents, followed by the leaking of a self-driving car blueprint stolen by a former employee (who was caught as he was trying to flee to China) last July.

Today, two new pieces of information have surfaced which suggest Apple may be actively sprinting towards its own self-driving vehicle. 

Data on poaching of Tesla employees

As CNBC first reported today, information from Tesla employees and a LinkedIn investigation showed that Apple has hired at least 46 employees of the Fremont, CA-based automaker. The employees moving to Cupertino have previously worked on Tesla's Autopilot, QA, powertrain, mechanical design, and firmware, as CNBC reports. It seems like Apple employed more than just engineers - former Tesla global supply chain managers found a new home at the trillion dollar company too. According to the report, not all of the lateral hires are expected to work on Project Titan: nonetheless, although the relative versatility of engineers may allow them to work on vastly different projects, it would be illogical to assume that the heavy hiring from a company that focuses exclusively on electric (and increasingly autonomous) vehicles is not correlated with a desire to get Project Titan up to speed. 

The latest departure from Tesla's ship is also one of the most high-profile ones: Doug Field, Tesla's Senior VP of Engineering, who was part of a mass departure from Apple to Tesla in 2013, decided to move back to Cupertino. His departure is rumoured to have caused a drop in morale at Tesla, which, despite claiming lower voluntary attrition rates than previous years, has not denied CNBC's claim of a wave of departures towards Apple. Actually, it partly confirmed it, choosing to focus on the fact that Tesla is a much poorer company than Apple and cannot compete in salary packages and benefits. Ironically, Elon Musk once joked about Apple being the Tesla graveyard, as those who do not make it at Tesla, join Apple. 

We wish them well. Tesla is the hard path. We have 100 times less money than Apple, so of course they can afford to pay more. We are in extremely difficult battles against entrenched auto companies that make 100 times more cars than we did last year, so of course this is very hard work.
— Tesla spokesperson (Source: CNBC)

New patent granted: External display for AVs 

Another interesting finding, first reported by Yahoo, is the granting of a patent for a "System and method for visual communication of an operational status" relating to autonomous vehicles. The patent application was filed in September 2016, and the patent was granted on August 21, 2018. The description of the system makes it abundantly clear that it is expected to be used with a self-driving car. Apple even provides examples of how the system may be used. 

The operational status of the vehicle may indicate an operational state of the vehicle, such as whether the vehicle is in manual control mode or autonomous control mode. In addition to displaying the operational state, the vehicle may also display an intended or future maneuver by the vehicle. For example, the vehicle may determine a route for the autonomous vehicle that includes various operations or steps and may display one or more of the operations or steps of the route. This information may be displayed such that an external observer to the vehicle may determine the near-future operation autonomous vehicle is about to perform
— Apple (Source: USPTO)

Admittedly, the granting of patent which was filed almost two years ago is not an indication that Apple is any closer to launching its own self-driving vehicle than it was back then. The scarcity of information around the development of Apple's AV leaves anyone interested in the project guessing whether Apple would produce a vehicle from the ground up (like Tesla), create its own software to be used with hardware from an established carmaker (like Waymo), or if the Project Titan will, at some point in the future, be abandoned altogether. What becomes evident through the surfacing of information like this patent granting, though, is the level of commitment to Project Titan: at a bare minimum, Apple is also exploring the hardware needed to make an AV as safe as possible. Interestingly, a device similar to the one covered by Apple's newly granted patent is used by Drive.ai's autonomous vans: they feature four screens (one on each side) which displays messages aimed at informing pedestrians of the vehicle's current state. 

Although the lack of information on Project Titan has prompted some to suggest it may be a smart idea for Apple to acquire Tesla (which may or may not be in the lookout for a buyer), the amount of research and resources Apple has poured into the development of an AV, may suggest that the Cupertino-based giant is an AV force not to be ignored, or at least, not to the extent it has been dismissed by analysts so far. 


Photo Credit: Mike Deerkoski