07-03-2021 | | By Robin Mitchell
Apple has been working on self-driving vehicles for a while, but recent reports show that the tech giant is now looking for LiDAR providers. How has Apple been involved with the automotive industry, what is Apple looking for specifically, and why could LiDAR be essential for self-driving vehicles?
Since 2014, Apple has been working on an autonomous vehicle project that hopes to be the worlds first truly autonomous car. While auto-pilot features exist in other vehicles (such as Tesla), these systems are not truly autonomous and require the driver to control the wheel during operation.
However, Apple quickly began to see the challenges in developing an electric car from the ground up which has seen Apple abandon its attempts at producing its own vehicle. But the research done into self-driving systems and battery technology is far too valuable to waste, and even Apple recognises that it could very well develop autonomous vehicles.
As it turns out, Apple’s failure in developing a car from scratch is far from a failure; autonomous cars are not cars, but hardware/software systems that sit on top of a car. Thus, Apple instead is looking towards other car manufacturers to provide a vehicle for Apple to convert into a self-driving system using their software development.
Recently, it came to light that Apple and Hyundai were in talks regarding a partnership to create self-driving vehicles. Hyundai’s access to the Northern American market and years of expertise in creating vehicles make Hyundai an excellent choice for Apple. Furthermore, it was revealed that Hyundai was willing to allow Apple full control over the software systems developed for any self-driving capabilities.
However, when the information got out to the public regarding the partnership, Apple was not too happy with the announcement. As such, any potential deal between the two companies was tabled. Furthermore, Nissan was also in talks with Apple, but quickly refused under the premise that Apple wanted full control over how the car was designed and Nissan being reduced to a hardware supplier.
Despite the recent setbacks in forming a partnership with automotive manufacturers, information has been made public from anonymous sources that Apple is currently looking for LiDAR developers. Such news is important for two reasons; the first is that Hyundai and Nissan's failed talks have not affected Apple’s plans to produce an autonomous vehicle. The second reason is that we now know what technology Apple is looking into.
Interestingly, a self-driving vehicle would not be the first product from Apple to include LiDAR; the iPhone 12 comes with an inbuilt LiDAR system. Using the LiDAR system, users of the iPhone 12 can use the camera and LiDAR to scan objects in their surroundings, render the object in 3D, and place the object in-camera via AR.
Many LiDAR producers who Apple has approached announced their meetings, and the result has been a bump in share prices for some companies by as much as 10%. Companies approached by Apple include Luminar Technologies and Velodyne Lidar Inc.
Many technologies exist that can be used to map an environment including RADAR, LiDAR and ultrasound. While LiDAR allows for an accurate mapping of an immediate location, no one technology will be used as no one technology can solve the problem.
LiDAR uses near-visible light for mapping, but such light can struggle depending on the environment. LiDAR can be an effective mapping tool in a clear setting, but as soon as thick fog sets in, LiDAR can become ineffective. RADAR has far better penetrative properties in environments such as rain and snow, allowing it to see right through unaffected.
Any self-driving system of the future will utilise multiple technologies simultaneously to enable safe operation in all environments. LiDAR will be used to map objects on the road and nearby cars, while a RADAR system will enable long-range scanning even in the thickest snowstorm. Ultrasound will be highly advantageous when determining the distance between nearby cars as well as for parking.