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Is Apple building a robocar? Maybe, maybe not


There is great buzz about some sensor-laden vehicles being driven around the USA which have been discovered to be owned by Apple Computer. The vehicles have cameras and LIDARs and GPS antennas and many are wondering is this an Apple Self-Driving Car? See also speculation from cult of Mac.

Here's a video of the vehicle driving around the East Bay (50 miles from Cupertino) but they have also been seen in New York.

We don't see the front of the vehicle, but it sure has plenty of sensors. On the front and back you see two Velodyne 32E Lidars. These are 32 plane LIDARS that cost about $30K. You see two GPS antennas and what appear to be cameras in all directions. You don't see the front in these pictures, which is where the most interesting sensors will be.

So is this a robocar, or is this a fancy mapping car? Rumours about Apple working on a car have been swirling for a while, but one thing to contradict that has been the absence of sightings of cars like this. You can't have an active program without testing on the roads. There are ways to hide LIDARS (and Apple is super secretive so they might) and even cameras to a degree, but this vehicle hides little.

Most curious are the Velodynes. They are tilted down significantly. The 32E unit sees from about 10 degrees up to 30 degrees down. Tilting them this much means you don't see out horizontally, which is not at all what you want if this is for a self-driving car. These LIDARs are densely scanning the road close around the car, and higher things in the opposite direction. The rear LIDAR will be seeing out horizontally, but it's placed just where you wouldn't place it to see what's in front of you. A GPS antenna is blocking the direct forward view, so if the goal of the rear LIDAR is to see ahead, it makes no sense.

We don't see the front, so there might be another LIDAR up there, along with radars (often hidden in the grille) and these would be pretty important for any research car.

For mapping, these strange angles and blind spots are not an issue. You are trying to build a 3D and visible light scan of the world. What you do't see from one point you get from another. For stree mapping, what's directly in front and behind are generally road and not interesting, but what's to the side is really interesting.

Also on the car is an accurate encoder on the wheel to give improved odemetry. Both robocars and mapping cars are interested in precise position information.

Arguments this is a robocar:

  • The Velodynes are expensive, high end and more than you need for mapping, though if cost is no object, they are a decent choice.
  • Apple knows it's being watched, and might try to make their robocar look like a mapping car
  • There are other sensors we can't seee

Arguments it's a mapping car

  • As noted, the Velodynes are titled in a way that really suggests mapping. (Ford uses tilted ones but paired with horizontal ones.)
  • The cameras are aimed at the corners, not forward as you would want
  • They are driving in remote locations, which eventually you want to do, but initially you are more likely to get to the first stage close to home. Google has not done serious testing outside the Bay Area in spite of their large project.
  • The lack of streetview is a major advantage Google has over Apple, so it is not surprising they might make their own.

I can't make a firm conclusion, but this leans toward it being a mapping car. Seeing the front (which I am sure will happen soon) will tell us more.

Another option is it could be a mapping car building advanced maps for a different, secret, self-driving car.


Could it be a license plate scanner

The LIDARS are $30K each. GPS antennas like that can be on any GPS but they are most often seen on the expensive industrial IMU/GPS units. The custom frame and mounting of all the gear -- this is a pretty expensive car. Licence plate scanning just needs a forward camera, and perhaps a rear one.

I got:

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Dear Brad,

First of all thank you very much for this pedagogical blog and for your instructive conferences available online.
What about convergence between shared e-robocars and supercapacitors ?

• Most commutes in urban areas are less than 20 km.
• 2 seats e-robocar = 100 Wh/km (or less with light pods).
• So to get a 20 km range we just need 100-200 kg of Skeleton supercapacitors (10 Wh/kg avaible now, 20 Wh/kg as soon as 2017).
• Ultra-fast charging (seconds), more than 1 million cycles lifespan, carbon = very abundant

What price is forecast for these ultracaps, in terms of dollars per kwh, now and in the future?

Those energy densities are still too low, the synergy is the reverse of what you think. Robots don't mind waiting for a charge.

More expensive than whith lithium batteries.
But with a million+ cycles the cost per mile goes down.
"Robots don’t mind waiting for a charge." That's right.

I know they are more expensive. To comment I need actual dollar figures.

I did a whole new post on this question

Thanks ! ;)

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