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8 things we learned about Apple Car this week

Legal action and recruitment mean we’ve learned a lot about the Apple Car this week, and it seems the technology it is developing is also being deployed across the company’s wider ecosystem. Here’s a few things we’ve learned this month:

Apple has thousands working on a car

Apple has already confirmed it is working on a car. We’ve heard rumors that it has a huge team working on developing some kind of vehicle. We know now those claims to be true, because charges made against former Apple engineer Xiaolang Zhang reveal the company has at least 5,000 employees authorised to access data on its autonomous driving efforts.

Car development is split between teams

The charges also reveal that Zhang had access to even more confidential data that was restricted to just 2,700 “core employees”.

Given what we know about how Apple likes to silo product development in an attempt to make sure few understand the overall picture, the idea that it has segmented access authorization for vehicle development suggests the company is once again working in such teams.

Apple is developing analysis systems

Zhang was developing software and hardware for use in autonomous vehicles. The suit claims he was part of Apple’s Compute Team, designing and testing circuit boards dedicated to analysing sensor data.

Given what we recently learned about Apple Maps developments, it seems likely Apple hopes to build a LiDAR-based system and that it is building solutions to accurately understand images captured by the vehicle. (That’s pretty much true for most autonomous vehicle development, of course).

Apple Maps is critical

Apple is bringing all Maps data in-house. This wasn’t just because the company wants to own everything, it’s because the company appreciates how important accurate mapping data will be to autonomous vehicles.

The company seems to be on trend with this idea. Swedish start-up Mapillary this week hired Till Quack, a former Apple engineering manager. Quack was part of Apple’s augmented reality and self-driving team. Founded by another former Apple engineer, Mapillary wants to develop systems to keep information about street signs, house numbers and so on accurate for other mapping systems.

Two other ex-Apple Special Project Group team members recently founded Aeva, a company developing visual analysis systems for autonomous vehicles. No wonder Apple is working so hard in the fields of machine intelligence and computer vision.

Apple has got lots of secrets

Apple is tight-lipped. It likes to keep secrets. However, in order to prosecute the engineer it has had to reveal a few of them. As ever with Apple, it’s not just about what the company does say as what it doesn’t say.

In this case, the lawsuit reveals the existence of numerous internal databases containing trade secrets and intellectual property that relates to autonomous vehicle development. The presence of numerous databases implies that the company is developing or has developed multiple different items within the project.

Some of those may be implied in a June analyst note from Guggenheim’s Robert Cihra, who noted that the company now holds patents in, “Autonomous vehicle control, guidance and navigation systems, as well as related neural networking, AR, LiDAR detection, camera and machine vision systems; but also patents in specific areas including vehicle climate control and body structure.”

Apple is already building prototypes

The court documents claim the engineer managed to access a whole heap of secrets, including prototypes and “prototype requirements”.

The latter includes things like power and low voltage requirements, drivetrain suspension mounts and battery system data.

This implies the company is building prototypes, at least of components for its vehicles. The engineer also took things like technical reference manuals, engineering schematics, and technical reports. This is all rather interesting when you consider previous claims that the company is developing new battery technologies that implement sophisticated cooling systems.

Apple has improved security

Apple has a new Product Security Team. That team is capable of figuring out what files have been shared, to where, and how using network activity. This activity revealed that the engineer had accessed a huge amount of content in the weeks before he quit.

Apple is still recruiting

Apple is still recruiting to its autonomous vehicles team. In June it hired Waymo senior engineer, Jaime Waydo. She joined an all-star team that also includes Tesla’s former mechanical engineering manager David Nelson, former senior powertrain test engineer John Ireland, former Tesla head recruiter Lauren Ciminera, and former Tesla vice president Chris Porritt. It also includes experts from vehicle battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, and former GM, Ford, Delphi, Blackberry experts. The company continues to recruit for skills that may have relevance to Project Titan, including a Senior Robotics Engineer.

Apple’s open secret

Apple is no longer keeping its work on cars completely secret. It can’t. It now has dozens of vehicles in testing in California (and presumably elsewhere). In June, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” calling these core technologies “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”

Apple’s recent decision to name former Google SVP Engineering, John Giannandrea as its Chief of Machine Learning and AI Strategy and its continued investments in highly secure on-device machine intelligence analysis systems may also indicate some of its wider plan for autonomous vehicles. That’s going to prove even more important once the first cloud-based autonomous vehicles find themselves driving underground with a patchy network connection. On-device analysis isn’t just good for privacy, it’s also good for autonomy. 

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