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Apple's secret self-propelled car project is starting to come into focus



One of the words most often associated with Apple's self-propelled car program is "secret". Unlike most competitors, Apple has been frustratingly tight with regard to the self-driving cars it tests in California. On Wednesday, the company had the opportunity to withdraw the curtain on the so-called "Project Titan" with the release of its voluntary security report to federal regulators. But it is surprising that the smartphone giant still holds the most exciting details under wraps.

Apple's report is almost comic short: seven pages, compared to an average length of 39 pages from the other companies that have submitted reports. In it, Apple describes his interest in self-propelled systems in broad, world-saving terms, but there is noticeable mom at virtually every key detail around the project. There is nothing about future distributions or commercial applications for the technology. There are no images or renderings to enter the length of the report that other companies have made.

Of course, this is not Apple's fault, really. Rather, it is at the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make this information completely voluntary. The Obama administration was the first to request voluntary security reports from companies testing self-driving cars; The Trump administration relaxed the rules even further, arguing for something that could be interpreted as mandatory could choke innovation. As a result, the reports have been reflections on how much (or, in Apple's case, how little companies] feel that they are sending their own driving message.

The first reports from Waymo, Ford and GM were more like smooth marketing brochures than anything else. Generally, they lack relevant statistics, such as fleet size, total miles driven, and disconnect speeds (the number of times the vehicle's software forced a human security driver to take over the vehicle's operation). Furthermore, there is no system in place at federal or state level for independent certification of the technology. We just have to take their word.

Apple's Project Titan has been in flux almost since its inception. Having started developing a custom-built self-propelled car, the plans were later scaled back to just developing software, with Apple as partnering with car manufacturers such as Volkswagen to deliver the hardware. Last year, an Apple employee who is a Chinese citizen was accused by the FBI of attempting to steal trade secrets related to the company's autonomous car project. It was the second time the government charged an Apple employee to try to steal self-propelled secrets for the past seven months. Apple also recently launched around 200 employees from the project.

The changes are relatively small, assuming as many as 5,000 people either worked on the project or had access to details last July. Confirming the restructuring, Apple said that former Titan employees will "support machine learning and other measures across Apple." It described the project's focus as "autonomous systems" instead of vehicles. This echoes comments from CEO Tim Cook, who suggested that the focus has expanded beyond cars. Apple described the initiative as "the most ambitious machine learning project ever."

It is also reflected in the security report. "We are investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and we are excited about the potential for automated systems in many areas, including transportation," the company said in the introduction. Apple's self-propelled cars are tested on a closed course that also shows simulation before they meet their road construction standards.

Nevertheless, there is not much in the report that we did not already know or could have assumed. Much of what is known about Apple's testing program has come from media leaks, legal documents, and state-level mandatory information such as California's much-maligned release reports. These reports, which dropped last week, showed that Apple has increased the number of autonomous kilometers significantly. Overall, the company reported 80,739 miles driven and 76,585 releases during a reporting period ranging from April 2017 to November 2018. 36,359 of the latter through June 2018. However, as of July, it began to completely change how disconnections occurred. Following the new method of July 2018, Apple reported 28 "major detachments" over 56,135 miles, a rate of one per every 2,050 miles driven.

This ambiguity about disengagements has led many experts to reject the California reports as completely meaningless. But at least there is data that can be tracked over time. They are imperfect, but they are better than nothing. The same cannot be said for these voluntary security reports.


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