By on February 14, 2019

Back in 2015, it was rumored that Apple was sinking significant resources and manpower into an electric vehicle program that also incorporated autonomous driving. But updates on “Project Titan” have been infrequent. Apple takes pains to keep its self-driving program under wraps.

There are, however, ways to track its progress. Since Apple tests its vehicles in California, it must submit an annual report to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles outlining how many times human safety drivers retake control or interfere with the vehicle’s self-driving systems, as well as a tally of total miles driven.

Based on this metric alone, Waymo appears to be the industry leader, with “disengagements” occuring every 11,000 miles. General Motors’ Cruise came in second with roughly 5,200 miles between periods of human intervention. But what about Apple? Apparently, the firm is facing some rather strong headwinds. The company claims a human had to retake control every 1.1 miles. 

Bloomberg, which first shared the DMV report, was careful to note that this single-metric overview only provides a glimpse into autonomous testing programs, and may not be representative of the overall situation. While absolutely true, one cannot ignore how wanting Apple’s progress appears to be.

Some of this could be attributed to safety concerns. None of the company’s self-driving vehicles registered within the state have ever been reported being involved in a serious accident. But they have been minor incidents attributed to other vehicles. We’re hunting for a silver lining here. No matter how you slice the situation, Apple is nowhere near where it hoped to be by 2019.

From Bloomberg:

In 2017, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook told Bloomberg Television that the company’s work on autonomous systems is the “the mother of all AI projects” and said it’s probably one of the most difficult artificial intelligence efforts to work on. Last year, the company hired Doug Field, a former chief engineer for Tesla, to oversee its project alongside Bob Mansfield, who used to be senior vice president of hardware engineering.

In January, Apple scaled back Project Titan again, laying off some employees and assigning others to different artificial intelligence teams within the company. Over the course of the last six months, two employees on the team allegedly attempted to steal trade secrets for China-based self-driving car companies. According to related lawsuits, Apple has about 1,200 people working on the project.

There were also layoffs in 2016, following a period where the company convinced Mansfield to return and take over Project Titan and reboot the seemingly stalled program. The following year, it was discovered that Apple had moved away from attempting to build a complete vehicle, focusing instead on autonomous tech that could be adapted for use in other vehicles.

However, one the more interesting bits of news came in April of 2017, when the company issued a letter to the California Department of Motor Vehicles asking it to reevaluate its reporting requirements. It claimed that disengagements should only be reported when a driver has to take over to avoid an accident or keep the car from breaking the law. The reason for this is that not all miles are comparable. Some tests periods specifically deal with short trips requiring frequent stops.

Last months’ layoffs are believed to have affected around 200 employees, though the company’s efforts were said to be on the upswing. Its self-driving fleet, which started 2018 with around 30 cars, is now believed to number closer to 70. Apple has clearly not given up on Titan. Still, with the company apparently so far behind the rest of the pack, one wonders how long this might remain the case.

[Image: Image Stocker/Shutterstock]

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14 Comments on “How Is Apple’s Autonomous Vehicle Program Doing, You Ask?...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    It’s a dead car driving.

  • avatar

    In life there comes a time when you have look yourself in the mirror and say “I suck at this” and find something else to do. Apple, you’re waaay past that point.

  • avatar

    A company with no experience whatsoever in automotive tech having trouble with autonomous tech? I am flabbergasted! Whodathunk hubris couldn’t over come?

  • avatar

    The simple answer is that nobody knows how they are doing; Apple is notorious for not telling until they are ready to tell. This 1.1-mile disconnect is not something they can avoid but nobody is saying under exactly what conditions those disconnects are taking place. Apple says that this number is extremely conservative, which may mean every time the safety rider put their hands on the wheel, whether they took control or not. We just don’t know.

    And I don’t care what brand it is, making assumptions on such little data is more embarrassing to the one who makes them than the company to which the assumption is made.

    • 0 avatar

      Good call. I have said from the first rumors of Titan that Apple isn’t making a car here. Instead they are making a system which can be licensed by OEMs. Similar to CarPlay. Apple is very good at several things that are needed for this auto-driving vehicle nonsense to work: good UI, tiny cameras & sensors, fast yet efficient processors, decent battery tech. At one point their code was nearly bug-free, as their stuff “just worked”, but those glory days are gone.

      Now its possible given what Tesla has accomplished that Apple might go full on into the car manufacturing but I believe that is still a long ways off. The current focus is the behind the scene tech and ways to integrate in into what OEM’s already offer. Imagine “Ford powered by Apple iDriver”.

  • avatar

    My daily has Autonomous Level II technology. Live on the west coast and rarely with our Polyana weather has there been an issue. After our snowiest February since 1916, and to date our coldest February in history, I’m utterly convinced we are years to decades away from 50-state and Canada 365-day a year any conditions Autonomous Level IV or V vehicles.

    Automatic braking had issues with berms of snow formed as plows went past cross intersections. Lane keeping assist? Pfffft…when the interstate is just covered in white there is nothing the system can use to identify a lane. Full-speed cruise control with stop/start? Not even available (I wouldn’t have used, was just curious if it would even engage). It was blinded by reduced visibility. Self-park? I don’t use that anyway. Front and rear sensors? Constantly confused by snow banks that pose no threat (yes some do, I do know the difference) issuing warnings at low speed for non-issues.

    Driving on a six-lane highway with a virtual divider between two lanes/four lanes that are completely snow covered, with other vehicles, in reduced visibility is a complex problem. The only markers are visual – but the human brain can reason with fair accuracy a lane should be about – here. It can also correct without much drama, and my eyes don’t require LIDAR or other systems to go, “oh wait, I’m driving straight toward a highway divider, I need to carefully change course given conditions.”

    This isn’t a pipe dream, technology will catch up, but all the promises of full autonomy by 2020-2023ish that have been made? Marketing puffery.

    • 0 avatar

      Ding, ding…

      “Think Different” isn’t going to solve that very quickly.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you’re a little pessimistic, but I agree with your last statement. 2020-23 is just too soon. Even if it’s made available in 2023, it just won’t be up to handling such conditions.

    • 0 avatar

      And then, once (more like if…) all your purely mechanical/static-environment challenges are solved, you are still stuck trying to program the bot for being: Crowded by one car choking up on you from behind, one car backing down on you. A couple of guys, or gals, get out of each car, guns drawn (or not yet…), walking towards you. You’re carrying a kid with a wealthy dad in the back, on the way to school…..

    • 0 avatar

      “I’m utterly convinced we are years to decades away from 50-state and Canada 365-day a year any conditions Autonomous Level IV or V vehicles.”

      I’m utterly convinced most drivers aren’t capable of 365-day a year autonomous capability. Last week I spotted two wrong-way drivers within half a mile of each other.

  • avatar

    You’re holding it wrong

  • avatar

    I remember it. Back then everyone was talking about it and the stock price went to almost 130, because they hired 400 people to work on a complete car.

    It is just a pump and dump operation by some investors (Carl Ichan I think), a few months after that the stock price dropped back to 100 and then Carl Ichan said he unloaded AAPL, after failing to force the company to distribute the cash / iphone profit back to share holders.

    The original concern was Waymo dominating AI / self driving, and force Apple out of the eco system. So they want to have enough patents that they can trade with others / make truce. Now that everyone is doing self driving and no one will be a monopoly, there is no point in doing it anymore.

    So yup, move some guys to other teams and layoff those who can’t. Those guys can find jobs in other self driving companies, don’t worry.

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