Apple Is Making Progress on Self-Driving Car Tech, AI Boss Says

But what is Apple's game plan?

Apple is starting to lift the veil of secrecy that has shrouded its self-driving car program from the beginning. Following the release of a paper detailing some of the company’s autonomous-driving research, Apple AI research director Ruslan Salakhutdinov gave a presentation further explaining what Apple has been up to.

One area of development is sensors. Salakhutdinov claimed Apple has developed a camera system that works in less-than-ideal conditions, such as when raindrops cover lenses. Researchers are also working on a system that can estimate the positions of pedestrians even when they are obscured by parked cars. Apple wants to use onboard sensors to created 3D maps for self-driving cars.

The presentation indicates that Apple is making progress on autonomous-driving systems, but the company is still playing catchup to Waymo and other rivals that began development of self-driving cars long before Apple threw its hat in the ring. It’s also unclear what Apple’s long-term plans for self-driving cars are.

While rumors of an “Apple Car” have generated plenty of excitement, CEO Tim Cook has indicated that Apple will focus only on the systems that enable autonomous driving, rather than building its own cars. That would be similar to the approach taken by other tech companies and makes sense, since building cars is an order of magnitude more difficult than any manufacturing project Apple has previously been involved with.

Apple self-driving cars have been spotted on public roads in California before, but the company’s recent openness regarding its research is a significant change in attitude. It’s likely brought about by the desire to keep top AI talent, since many researchers have chafed at the company’s secrecy. The researchers want a less-restricted flow of information, that to mention the recognition that comes with public disclosure of breakthroughs.