The Apple chief: driverless car venture is ‘the mother of all AIl projects’

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Apple has shed new light on its top-secret driverless car project, as chief executive Tim Cook described the challenge of building autonomous vehicles as “the mother of all” artificial intelligence projects.

Cook said Apple was ploughing resources into developing technology to control driverless vehicles,
although he refused to rule out the Silicon Valley firm building its
own car at some point. The Apple boss spoke as shares in his company and
other US tech firms came under pressure this week amid investor
concerns that a sector-wide boom is losing steam.

Cook attempted to restore faith in Apple’s ability to strike out into
new territory by giving his most detailed comments yet about a car
venture that has been shrouded in secrecy.

“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” said Cook in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
“Clearly one purpose of autonomous systems is self-driving cars. There
are others. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI [artificial
intelligence] projects.” He added: “It’s probably one of the most
difficult AI projects actually to work on.”

When reports of Apple’s interest in cars started to emerge in the
media, it was initially thought that the company was going to challenged
the automotive giants of Detroit, which are racing to build their own self-driving cars.

But the spectrum of Apple’s ambitions narrowed last year after Apple veteran Bob Mansfield was put in charge of the programme, dubbed Project Titan.

While Cook was cagey about how Project Titan will evolve, his
comments suggest that Apple’s primary focus is on AI technology that
could be sold or adapted for use in other industries.

“We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will
do, but we are being straightforward that it’s a core technology that we
view as very important,” said Cook.

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David
Bailey, a motor industry expert at Aston University in Birmingham, said
Apple’s ability to come up with user-friendly products, such as the
iPhone, iPad and iPod, could give it an edge over rivals.

“They can offer a number of things such as the software systems that
enable the tech to function but also making that extremely friendly for a
passenger in a way that other tech companies haven’t been able to do.”

He added: “Autonomous systems can open up mobility to people who
don’t use cars but it needs to be accessible and user-friendly. Apple’s
expertise is in that area, they have a knack of making something
intuitively very easy to use.”

Dr Nick Reed, academy director at transport research group TRL, said
Apple was smart to focus on technology rather than going head-to-head
with car manufacturers.

“It would be difficult for them to revolutionise the production of
cars but in use and operations, there’s a great opportunity. Their
strength is in integration with digital lifestyle – a seamless
experience, whether it’s at home, on your desktop, or your smartphone or
now in your car.”

One analyst said Apple may have abandoned plans to build a car after realising it was lagging behind Detroit-based rivals.

“They were slow to begin testing autonomous systems, and they now
have a considerable innovation gap to close,” said James Hodgson of tech
consultancy ABI Research. “Previous attempts by Apple to address
personal mobility and automation have been marred by high turnover in
specialist staff.”

Referring to reports that Apple had attempted to form alliances with
two German carmakers, Hodgson added: “In addition, previous talks with
BMW and Daimler allegedly broke down over data protection and control.
It seems Apple has decided that developing their own autonomous system
is preferable to partnering.”

Silicon Valley’s other behemoth, Google parent company Alphabet, has
also shifted the focus of its driverless vehicle plans towards
technology for installation in cars built by established automotive
firms.

The company’s Waymo division confirmed on Monday it is phasing out
its “Firefly” bubble car and has instead sought to highlight its partnership on the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

YooJung Ahn, lead industrial designer and Jaime Waydo, lead systems engineer for Waymo, said in a blogpost:
“Now that we’ve moved to our next phase – letting members of the public
use our self-driving cars in their daily lives – we’re ready to retire
our fleet of Fireflies and focus on integrating our latest technology
into vehicles like our new self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan.”

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