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