apple ceo tim cook

Apple’s driverless car research made public, describes system designed to protect pedestrians

Driverless car research conducted by Apple has appeared online for the first time following years of secrecy surrounding the company’s developments in the area.

Leaks emanating from the iPhone maker suggested that the company has been working on the technology since at least 2015 but other than a few vague comments from CEO Tim Cook (pictured), nothing has been revealed about its progress. 

In August it emerged that Apple had decided to abandon plans to create its own vehicle in favour of working on software and technology that will be used by car manufacturers to power their autonomous vehicles.

A research paper was submitted by Apple computer scientists on 17 November which described a system allowing self-driving cars to better spot cyclists and pedestrians while using fewer sensors than the current methods used.

It appears to be the company’s first publicly disclosed paper on autonomous vehicles.

The new software approach called VoxelNet is designed to help computers detect three-dimensional objects.

Current object detection systems rely on lidar technology. This works by shining light onto a surface and measuring how long it takes to return in order to figure out how far an object is and create an image of its shape.

While the units supply depth information, their low resolution makes it hard to detect small, faraway objects without help from a normal camera linked to it in real time.

But with new software, the Apple researchers said they were able to get “highly encouraging results” in spotting pedestrians and cyclists with just lidar data. They also wrote they were able to beat other approaches for detecting three-dimensional objects that use only lidar. The experiments were computer simulations and did not involve road tests.

Academics are used to freely sharing their work with peers at other organisations. Yielding to that dynamic, Apple in July established the Apple Machine Learning Journal for its researchers. Their work rarely appears outside the journal, which so far has not published any research on self-driving cars.

In August Cook called self-driving cars “the mother of all AI projects” several months after telling federal regulators it was excited about the technology and asked them not to restrict testing of the technology.

In April, Apple filed a self-driving car testing plan with California regulators.

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