Apple in talks over next-gen sensors for autonomous cars: report

April 18, 2019 09:16
Apple’s interest in next-generation lidar sensors comes as the company has stepped up road testing of autonomous vehicles. Photo: Reuters

Apple has held talks with at least four companies as possible suppliers for next-generation lidar sensors in self-driving cars, evaluating the companies’ technology while also still working on its own lidar unit, Reuters reports, citing people familiar with the discussions.

The talks are focused on next-generation lidar, a sensor that provides a three-dimensional look at the road, the report said, noting that the move represents fresh evidence of Apple’s renewed ambitions to enter the autonomous vehicle arena. 

Apple is seeking lidar units that would be smaller, cheaper and more easily mass produced than current technology, according to the Reuters sources.

The iPhone maker is said to be setting a high bar with demands for a “revolutionary design”.

The sensor effort means Apple wants to develop the entire chain of hardware to guide autonomous vehicles and has joined automakers and investors in the race to find winning technologies.

Current lidar systems, including units from Velodyne mounted on Apple’s fleet of self-driving test vehicles, use laser light pulses to render precise images of the environment around the car.

But the systems can cost US$100,000 and use mechanical parts to sweep the laser scanners across the road.

That makes them too bulky and prone to failure for use in mass-produced vehicles. The shortcomings have spurred US$1 billion in investment at dozens of startups and mature companies alike to make lidar smaller, cheaper and more robust.

Apple’s interest in next-generation lidar sensors comes as it has sharply increased its road testing while bringing on key hires from Tesla and Google.

It remains unclear whether the goal of Apple’s Project Titan is to build its own vehicle or supply the hardware and software elements of self-driving car while pairing with a partner for the entire vehicle, the report said.

But what is clear from Apple’s interest in cheaper lidar systems is that it wants to control the “perception stack” of sensors, computers and software to drive an autonomous vehicle, regardless of who makes the vehicle, Reuters cited a source as saying. 

In addition to evaluating potential outside suppliers, Apple is believed to have its own internal lidar sensor under development.

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