• Tim CookApple
    CEO Tim Cook
    Cisco Live/Business
    Insider

    Apple is still “playing catch-up” with its
    self-driving car technology, one person who’s seen the tech
    says.

  • The scaled down unit is still in turmoil after a major
    reorg last year but is hiring again.
  • Apple seems to be eyeing the ride hailing market but
    isn’t yet working on becoming the next Uber itself.

The development of Apple’s
autonomous driving technology is at about the stage where
Google’s self-driving car project “was three years ago,”
according to a person who has seen Apple’s tech and is familiar
with the technology of several other autonomous car front
runners.

“Apple is just trying to play catch up,” this person told
Business Insider.

Google’s project, now spun out into its own company called Waymo,
is by many accounts the furthest along in self-driving
technology. Companies such as Uber, Tesla and traditional
automakers such as GM, are all developing autonomous driving
technology. 

Apple is a relatively recent entrant to the field. But despite
some of the strides the company has made in self-driving
technology, it remains far behind some of its rivals.

Apple’s car project is part of the company’s Special
Project Team and it famously scaled back its ambitions for a
self-driving car late last year. Apple had originally planned to
build its own automobile. The company enlisted a sprawling
team of engineers to rethink every detail of today’s car, such as
replacing traditional car wheels with spherical
wheels, ditching the gas pedal, and adding virtual
reality into internal displays, reports the
New York Times Daisuke Wakabayashi.

In July 2016, the Special Projects team was reorganized
under a new leader, Bob Mansfield. Layoffs ensued and, under
Mansfield, Apple shifted course away from the idea
of building its own car. The unit is now focused on
developing “autonomous systems” Tim Cook
told Bloomberg’s Emily Chang in June.

Hiring again

Internally, the Apple car project is still feeling the results of
the reorg and is still suffering from some confusion of purpose,
but it is hiring again, this person told us. It is
specifically seeking out people with autonomous vehicle software
experience. With
over 250 companies and startups
working on self-driving cars
these days, competition for talent is fierce, but there’s also
plenty of poaching ground.

To test its autonomous technology, Apple is operating a
commuter car service for employees codenamed PAIL — short
for “Palo Alto to Infinite Loop” — that
ferries
 staff between Apple’s campus and
the nearby town of Palo Alto, California, according to the
New York Times.

PAIL is likely based on a Lexus RX450h SUV per
photos Bloomberg posted of an Apple test car in the
spring
. Earlier this year, Apple registered three
Lexus SUVs as self-driving cars in the state of California.

This is similar to how Google’s self-driving cars began, by
shuttling employees around the Googleplex campus in Mountain
View, California.

By 2014 — the point in the development of Google’s
technology that Apple has now reached — the company’s
self-driving car technology still suffered from many constraints.
Speaking in 2014, Google’s then-head of autonomous cars said that

Google’s vehicles could not detect open manholes on the streets
or “see” a stoplight that was in front of a bright sun
. The
cars could easily be fooled by road construction zones and could
not tell the difference between a crumbled piece of paper or a
more dangerous obstacle littering the road. 

Lexus SUV equipped with Google self-driving sensorsLexus
SUV equipped with Google self-driving sensors
Elijah
Nouvelage/Reuters

According to the source that Business Insider spoke
with, Apple is creating its autonomous systems with an eye
to the ride-sharing and ride-hailing market but that Apple
has no plans at this point to go it alone and try to become the
next Uber.

“Even if they have this [autonomous vehicle] specialty, and they
get to a mature point on it, they don’t have the operations
expertise. It’s the same thing that Waymo is facing,” this person
said.

So, Apple will be leaning on partnerships with ride-hailing
services to help it turn this technology into a new business.
Apple has apparently already geared up for
that. Last year
Apple invested $1 billion into Uber’s Chinese
competitor Didi Chuxing
 and has a seat
on its board.

Similarly, Waymo has partnered with Lyft. 

Should Uber get through its current leadership crises by
hiring a new CEO who rebuilds the firm’s damaged reputation,
this person believes that Apple could be open to a partnership
with Uber as well.

Uber is also creating its own self-driving car technology. And it
is currently locked in bitter litigation with Waymo over
self-driving car technology.  Even so, Uber’s
self-driving technology unit is still hiring, and Uber’s board
continues to support the project, this person told us.

Apple declined to comment.

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