Apple Car reportedly shopping for the eyes of its autonomous driving

Apple’s autonomous car project is hunting for the well-rumored EV’s eyes, a new report suggests, with the iPhone-maker said to be in discussions with multiple LIDAR specialists. The scanning technology is widely – though not universally – believed to be key to building vehicles that can drive themselves, given its ability to map an environment, in real time, and in great detail.

Multiple companies develop LIDAR sensors currently, for automotive and robotics use, among other purposes. Apple has also used the same core premise of the technology for its own custom sensors, the so-called LiDAR Scanner that launched on the iPad Pro and later appeared on the high-end iPhone 12 Pro Max.

Now, Apple is currently speaking with multiple sensor companies, Bloomberg reports, quoting insiders familiar with the negotiations. Talks are still ongoing, it’s suggested, and Apple is not yet believed to have picked a likely LIDAR candidate. Whichever hardware is picked, it’ll need to be compatible with the custom software that Apple’s Project Titan EV project has been working on for the past few years.

What is LIDAR?

LIDAR, or “light detection and ranging,” relies on a system of 3D laser scanning. A laser pulse is sent out, and then its reflection measured: by calculating the time taken for that to happen, the distance of whatever object it reflected off can be calculated. LIDAR scanners shift their arrays in order to build up a so-called point cloud of those measurements, from which the 3D topography of a scene can be built.

The technology has advantages in that its range can be considerable compared to other sensors, and – depending on the light it relies upon – it can still operate even in rain, fog, or other inclement conditions. LIDAR’s downside has traditionally been cost and practicality. The early “spinning bucket” scanners could each cost about the same as a luxury car individually, were bulky, and the moving parts left them prone to potential damage.

More recent developments, particularly solid-state LIDAR, have sought to address those issues. Rather than fully spinning arrays, smaller solid-state sensors use micro-mirrors to adjust the spread of the emitters. That also makes them smaller, and helps contribute to lower pricing. As such, it becomes more practical to outfit a vehicle with multiple, smaller LIDAR scanners rather than a single, large example, which in addition helps streamline their presence into the overall design of the car.

Is LIDAR necessary for autonomous cars?

Of course, the fact that Apple’s car project would be looking to LIDAR is no great surprise. The vast majority of self-driving vehicles in development include the laser scanning technology among their sensor arrays; indeed, it’s quicker to name projects that don’t rely to some extent on LIDAR. Tesla’s Elon Musk has been perhaps the most outspoken critic, maintaining that his EV’s existing camera, ultrasonic, and radar based sensor suites can deliver sufficient scanning performance for Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy.

Most other automakers, and projects, working on self-driving cars have at least one LIDAR sensor, and typically several. The falling costs of the technology have also seen it make inroads into production vehicles as a sensor for Level 2 and Level 3 advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Volvo, for example, plans to equip its upcoming SPA 2 platform for future vehicles with a Luminar LIDAR, having first invested in the sensor company back in 2018.

Apple has years of car development ahead of it

Even if it picks a LIDAR provider today, Apple’s goal is several years out it’s suggested. The company is said to be looking to sensor technology “that will be considered cutting edge four to five years from now” the insiders claim.

That sub-project is undergoing alongside body, cabin, drivetrain, and battery work as Project Titan attempts to piece together the key elements of a production electric vehicle. Although no public timescale for launch has been given – and indeed Apple is tight-lipped about its vehicle plans altogether – the internal estimate for any potential launch is at least five years from now, it’s said.

While that’s a considerable length of time, on paper, in automotive development terms it’s actually relatively rapid. Traditional car design, engineering, and ramp into production would normally be expected to take anything from 7-10 years, though players in the industry have attempted to trim that more recently as technology develops more rapidly. Key to that acceleration has been the development of common platforms, most recently for electrified vehicles whether plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) or fully battery-electric (BEVs).

It’s those which Apple is also said to be looking to, as a potential way to streamline its route to market. Talks were widely rumored between the Cupertino firm and Hyundai-Kia, though they failed to produce a deal.