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iCar anyone? Apple receives patents for self-driving cars in California

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 15 April 2017, 18:18 IST
(File photo)

Smartphone giant Apple had been secretly working on a self-driving car codenamed Project Titan for a number of years. The company never formally acknowledged it, and now it appears to be dead.

However, recent reports indicate that instead of developing its own electric car, it is focusing its efforts on developing self-driving software. Such software can be deployed in various other cars. This was, on 14 April, confirmed by California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Here's the list of permits issued:

A Bloomberg report had said, back in October 2016, that Apple had switched to focusing on software instead of hardware. At that point, Apple's 1,000 strong team was "reassigned, let go, or have left of their own volition".Armed with the permit, the company will commence testing of its software on the streets of California. Multiple reports say that Apple will begin testing 'soon' but none have a firm date.

Armed with the permit, the company will commence testing of its software on the streets of California. Multiple reports say that Apple will begin testing 'soon' but none have a firm date.The Calfornia DMV reveals, even more, details about Apple's self-driving ambitions. Apple has three vehicles registered under this permit - all three of which are 2015 Lexus RX crossovers - and in addition to this, the company has also employed six drivers. The law requires a person to be present in the self-driving vehicle who is able to take control, if something goes wrong.

The Calfornia DMV reveals, even more, details about Apple's self-driving ambitions. Apple has three vehicles registered under this permit - all three of which are 2015 Lexus RX crossovers - and in addition to this, the company has also employed six drivers. The law requires a person to be present in the self-driving vehicle who is able to take control, if something goes wrong.

In December 2016, Apple had strongly hinted about its ambitions in this sector. "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," Apple said in a letter submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In December 2016, Apple had strongly hinted about its ambitions in this sector. "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," Apple said in a letter submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Late to the party

Littered with companies - 29 of them to be precise - Apple's arrival is indeed late. The likes of Google's Waymo, Uber, Elon Musk's Tesla Motors and Mercedes-Benz are far ahead in the world of autonomous driving.

No one knows the extent of Apple's software development and hence no one can predict how fast the company will mark its presence. That will be known, once Apple reports their 'disengagement rates' to the DMV who in turn will make the numbers public. A lot of companies apply for the permit but don't report any miles driven.

NOTE: Mercedes-Benz has teamed up with Bosch to introduce a self-driving taxi service by 2020. This is a year earlier than other companies such as General Motors, Ford, BMW and Google's Waymo.

Apple's reason for joining the party was that it believes autonomous technology can help ease congestion and help avoid many yearly accidents. On the other hand, Apple, as always, is thinking about money. Self-driving cars are expected to be a gold mine for companies in the near future and as Apple's core businesses - phones, tablets and personal computers - saturate, the company needs new revenue streams.

Apple with a fast track record catching up to its rivals, and billions of dollars in cash, will be nothing short of a force to reckon with. It also re-hired former hardware executive Bob Mansfield to lead the project.

One of the most recurring speculations is of Apple buying Tesla. This is highly unlikely, but nonetheless a constant reminder that Apple is within reach of the top competitors in the self-driving sphere.

Apple's self-driving technology, according to reports, is being developed in secret in company offices Sunnyvale, California, not too far from its headquarters. Bloomberg also reports that Apple has a team in Canada that is "working on a car operating system that would power the platform".

The final decision on the project will be taken before the end of the year.

Another byte of the Apple

In some outrageous news this week, Apple might just pull off an audacious $200 billion-plus takeover of Disney. If this acquisition goes through, a company worth $1 trillion would be created and as a 'speculative' report from RBC Capital Markets says, “almost limitless opportunities in content and technology.”

A combined company would be a direct competitor and a threat to the likes of Netflix, Amazon and HBO. Apple would be landing global streaming sports rights for ESPN and Disney's theme parks among others.

“Content is a major focus for Apple, target size is not an issue, and Disney offers an avenue to diversify away from hardware without diluting the strong Apple brand,” RBC’s Cahall and Kulp wrote. Last fall, Tim Cook, Apple's chief, said that the company is open to "acquisitions of any size".

On the other hand, Bloomberg is reporting that Apple is looking to invest in Toshiba's semiconductor business. In this regard, Apple might join hands with Foxconn - Apple's major supplier - to make a bid.

Apple is considering an investment of a several billion dollars to take more than a 20% stake. The plan would have Toshiba keeping a partial holding so that the business is kept under Japan and US control. Toshiba is the world's second largest supplier of flash memory chips.

Apple has a cash balance of $241 billion as of December 2016 so either of these moves is quite realistic in the near future.

With Apple spreading its wings, one thing is for certain. The company isn't going to keep depending on its core business for much longer. Planning for the future is the name of the game for Apple in 2017 – the year of the tenth anniversary of the iPhone.

First published: 15 April 2017, 18:18 IST
 
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.

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