Apple's self-driving test vehicle spotted in Silicon Valley

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【Summary】Just two weeks after Apple was granted a permit for testing autonomous vehicles by the California DMV, a white Lexus RX450h was spotted driving in Silicon Valley.

Original Eric Walz    Apr 27, 2017 6:07 PM PT
Apple's self-driving test vehicle spotted in Silicon Valley

By Eric Walz

Just two short weeks after Apple was granted a permit for testing autonomous vehicles by the California DMV, a white Lexus RX450h was spotted today, April 27th (PDT) in Silicon Valley after leaving an Apple facility.

In the photos supplied by Bloomberg, Apple's Lexus hybrid SUV has been outfitted with a roof mounted LiDAR system, as well as other equipment on the front and sides of the vehicle. Two vehicle operators occupied the front seats.

Apple's LiDAR Technology

The sensors on Apple's SUV appear to include Velodyne's top of the line HDL-64E 64-channel LiDAR sensor mounted on the roof, at least two other radars, as well as a series of cameras. According to an industry expert that viewed the photos, the sensors appear to be products bought off the shelf from suppliers, rather than custom-made ones for Apple. However, Velodyne's 64-channel LiDAR sensor is robust, and is capable of 2.2 million data points per second and has a range of 120 meters. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

apple suv 2.jpg

Bloomberg Photo

The California Department of Motor Vehicle's permit recently granted to Apple allows the company to conduct its trials with three vehicles. Apple's self-driving program is known internally as "Project Titan". The program has endured a tumultuous year since veteran Apple hardware executive Bob Mansfield took over its leadership in April 2016.

Mr.Mansfield has steered the project's ambitious goal of building an entire car to focusing on developing autonomous-driving software before Apple considers building its own car in the future, according to people familiar with the strategy said at the time. Prior to the shift in strategy, the company held talks about possibly licensing its technology to other carmakers, including Volkswagen and BMW.

California was the first state to allow self-driving vehicle testing on public streets

California was the first state in the U.S. to allow autonomous vehicle testing on its roads. However, a special DMV permit is required for companies to test their self-driving technology which includes have a human operator in the driver seat.

Since the law was passed, California has granted autonomous car testing permits to 30 other companies as of April 2017, including Tesla, Baidu, Google, Ford and NVIDIA. California lawmakers are working on rewriting the legislation for more advanced testing. California currently allows the testing of autonomous cars without the presence of a driver only at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station, a closed course test facility east of San Francisco.

Apple and Uber were two of the last technology companies to apply for California's required self-driving testing permit. Uber initially refused to apply for the permit, insisting that their vehicles were exempt. The California DMV quickly intervened, and revoked all of Uber's vehicle registrations in December of 2016, after one of its self driving Volvos failed to stop at a red light in busy downtown San Francisco. The incident resulted in heightened safety concerns about the testing of self-driving cars on public roads. Uber has since applied for the necessary permit.

Competition for Apple

In addition to Apple, both Waymo, and autonomous driving start-up Zoox Inc. are using the Lexus RX450 models to test their self-driving car technology, according to the California DMV. Cruise Automation is using the Chevy Bolt, and Waymo has been recently testing with Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Other major companies are testing self driving technology in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Mercedes Benz, Nissan, and Tesla.

Technology companies in Silicon Valley are in a race to be the first to make self-driving technology available. Now that Apple's self-driving test vehicle has been sighted, they have officially entered the race, albeit a little late.

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