With nearly $200 billion in the bank and an R&D budget that’s never been larger, Apple is reportedly making big moves to beef up its growing team of auto industry experts. While we’ve seen reports pointing to Apple’s desire to build an electric car, a recent report in The Wall Street Journal relays that Apple is seriously exploring autonomous vehicle technologies as well.
First off, the Journal reports that Apple recently hired long-time industry veteran Doug Betts, a talented executive who brings well over two decades worth of manufacturing, product quality, and automotive-based supply chain expertise to the table. Prior to joining Apple, Betts held important positions at both Toyota and Nissan. Most recently, Betts worked at Fiat Chrysler where he helped oversee a varied number of initiatives, from manufacturing operations to product quality.
Even more interesting, though, is a tidbit which suggests that Apple’s interest in autonomous driving is much more serious than anyone previously anticipated.
Earlier this year, Apple hired Paul Furgale a well-regarded autonomous vehicle researcher in Switzerland, and has begun recruiting other robotics and machine vision experts to work on a confidential project.
Mr. Furgale had been deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH. Mr. Furgale previously had led a European Commission project called V-Charge that sought to develop self-parking vehicle technology.
The report further states that Furgale is helping assemble a specialized time within Apple that will explore autonomous driving technologies. Interestingly enough, the report adds that Furgale has already brought a University of Michigan grad student into the fold.
The choice of school here is particularly noteworthy given University of Michigan’s ongoing research into self-driving cars. Just this week, the University, in conjunction with automakers, tech companies, and the Michigan Department of Transportation, opened up a fake 32-acre city on the school’s Ann Arbor campus. The purpose, naturally, is to speed along development of “driverless and connected cars.”
The USA Today adds some detail to the scope of the project.:
The site has many familiar features of urban driving, including intersections, a railroad crossing, two roundabouts, brick and gravel roads and parking spaces. Moveable building facades and fake pedestrians can be altered for different kinds of tests. There’s a simulated highway entrance ramp. Two features — a metal bridge and a tunnel — will be a special challenge for wireless signals and radar sensors.
Peter Sweatman, the director of the Mobility Transformation Center, says other test sites in Sweden and Japan have some of the same features, but the Michigan site is one of the most advanced autonomous vehicle testing grounds in the world. Automakers, high-tech companies and university researchers will test car-to-car communication systems, which could one day predict accidents and stop cars before a mishap. They’ll also be testing semi-autonomous and driverless vehicles at the site.
And so the plot thickens.
So might we see an Apple Car unveiling sometime before 2020 as Bloomberg suggested a few months back? Color me skeptical, but the mounting evidence surrounding Apple’s hyper secretive car project is getting much too large to ignore.