Apple Patents a Navigation System for Self-Driving Cars

But where will Apple go from here?

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Apple just patented a navigation system for self-driving cars, indicating that the tech giant is making progress on autonomous-driving technology, even as Apple's plans for commercializing it remains unclear.

An Apple patent application for an "Autonomous Navigation System" was published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Thursday. The patent describes a way to streamline self-driving car navigation by relying less on maps, which have to be frequently updated and checked against real-time data from a car's sensors. That requires an excessive amount of computing power, the patent claims.

Instead, Apple's system would guide a car "independently of any data received from any devices external to the vehicle, and nay navigation data stored locally to the vehicle prior to any monitoring of navigation," according to the patent. Apple seems to be going in a different direction from its competitors, who tend to view high-quality maps as the best way to help self-driving cars navigate.

But a patent doesn't mean that Apple will try to commercialize this navigation system, or that the system would perform well in the real world if it did. Still, the patent is another indication that Apple is making progress on autonomous-driving technology. The patent follows company disclosures of research into how self-driving cars can better detect pedestrians, and a new camera system.

It's unclear what Apple plans to do with all of this research. CEO Tim Cook has indicated that Apple will focus on the systems that enable autonomous driving, rather than build its own cars. Just developing an autonomous-driving system would be the "mother of all AI projects," Cook said in June. Focusing on the tech would allow Apple to avoid the cost and complexity of car manufacturing, although it would disappoint the legions of Silicon Valley acolytes infatuated with the idea of an "Apple Car."