Apple Developing Self-Driving Campus Shuttle Service as Part of Scaled Back Car Effort

Apple is planning to develop a self-driving shuttle service that will transport Apple employees from one building to another as part of its autonomous vehicle efforts, reports The New York Times in a piece that explores why Apple scaled back its car ambitions.

Apple's "open secret" car project shifted focus from a full autonomous vehicle to an autonomous driving system last year, and to test that system, Apple will reportedly use employee shuttles.

One of the Lexus SUVs Apple is currently using to test its autonomous driving software

Called "PAIL," an acronym for "Palo Alto to Infinite Loop," the shuttle program will transport employees between Apple's myriad offices in Silicon Valley. Apple is said to be planning to use a commercial vehicle "from an automaker" paired with its own autonomous driving technology for the shuttles.

Five Apple employees familiar with Apple's car project spoke to The New York Times about the shuttle program and also shared some details about the technologies Apple explored before the project was downscaled from car to software.

When Apple first started exploring car technology under the "Project Titan" name, it hired hundreds of people with expertise in everything from automation to car manufacturing. The team explored a wide range of technologies, including silent motorized doors, car interiors sans steering wheel or gas pedals, augmented reality displays, an improved LIDAR sensor that protrudes less from the top of a car, and spherical wheels.
Apple even looked into reinventing the wheel. A team within Titan investigated the possibility of using spherical wheels -- round like a globe -- instead of the traditional, round ones, because spherical wheels could allow the car better lateral movement.
As has been previously reported, Apple's car project suffered from delays, internal strife, and leadership issues. According to the people who spoke to The New York Times, there was no clear vision for the Apple Car and there were internal disagreements over whether Apple should pursue an autonomous vehicle or a semiautonomous vehicle and what language should be used for the CarOS software (Swift or C++).

Steve Zadesky, who initially led Project Titan but stepped down in early 2016, pushed for a semiautonomous vehicle, while Jony Ive's industrial design team wanted an autonomous vehicle that would "allow the company to reimagine the automobile experience."

Bob Mansfield took over the car project in mid-2016, and the project shifted from vehicle to software. Many members of the hardware team were laid off, but morale is said to have improved under his leadership now that Apple has a clear focus on an autonomous driving system.

Apple is now far enough along in its software development that the company is testing it in several 2015 Lexus RX450h vehicles equipped with a host of sensors and cameras. The vehicles have been out on the roads in the Cupertino area since April. It's not yet clear when Apple plans to expand that testing to encompass the campus shuttles.

Back in June, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke publicly about Apple's work on autonomous driving software in a rare candid moment. "We're focusing on autonomous systems. It's a core technology that we view as very important," he said. "We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects. It's probably one of the most difficult AI projects actually to work on."

Related Roundup: Apple Car
Tag: nytimes.com

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Apple to Add Grade Crossings to Maps After Federal Recommendation

Apple will add grade crossings to Apple Maps after a safety recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), reports The New York Times. The recommendation comes after a two year investigation into an accident that occurred after a driver got his truck stuck on railroad tracks while following directions from Google Maps.

applemaps
Grade crossings are places where the road and railway lines are at the same level.  The case the NTSB cites in its recommendation is that of Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, who misinterpreted directions from Google Maps and wound up on a poorly marked grade crossing. His truck, which was hauling a trailer, got stuck on the tracks. While Sanchez-Ramirez was able to abandon his vehicle, a train struck it and resulted in the death of an engineer and injuries to 32 others. There were more than 200 fatalities at grade crossings last year in the U.S.

Today, the NTSB issued a safety recommendation that Google and other map providers, like Apple, should add exact locations of more than 200,000 grade crossings to their mapping data. The Federal Railroad Administration has been lobbying Apple and other tech companies to add the data for the past 18 months.

Apple and several other companies, like Google, Microsoft and MapQuest, have agreed to add the data but have not disclosed when they will integrate grade crossings into its mapping apps. The NTSB's recommendations are not binding, but they can used to pressure companies and lobby Congress to take action.

Investigators believe lack of warning in Google Maps was one of several factors that contributed to the accident, including driver fatigue and a lack of more distinctive signage at the grade crossing. There have been five accidents at the crossing since 2008.


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