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The iCar: a temptation Apple might have to resist

Apple's plan is to disrupt the automotive industry. (Photo: Apple)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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Hello, automated driving community! Apple gets a reality check, driverless tech creeps into Formula 1 and ethical questions remain in the spotlight: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

Apple hasn’t exactly always been the teaming up type. It’s not like it gave Sony a call when developing the first iPod in 2003. Nor did it ring Nokia in 2007 to create the iPhone. Apple is more the “do-it-all” type – and pretty successfully thus far. Its revolutionary design and exceptional usability has reinvented entire markets. But did it bite off more than it could chew with driverless cars?

According to a recent New York Times story, the answer would be yes. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in June that the company is "focusing on autonomous systems" – meaning developing the underlying technology. Not an iCar. However the New York Times has revealed that Apple aimed for much more initially: to build a ground-breaking autonomous vehicle that would shake up the entire industry.

Important, as always with Apple, was focusing on a clean design. That meant developing new Lidar sensors that wouldn’t need to be installed on top of the car – as seen with Waymo’s self-driving car which isn’t particularly known as a style icon. Apple even tried to reinvent the wheel. Literally, that is. A team investigated the possibility of using spherical wheels to allow for better lateral movement. Add disagreement whether Apple should build a semi-autonomous or fully autonomous car – and you have a problem. The sheer size of the project eventually proved to be a showstopper – forcing Apple to scale down its ambitions to “only” developing an autonomous driving system.

Concentrating on the software core competencies is a move that Waymo made a while ago. Waymo is arguably leading the field with its autonomous driving software, with Fiat Chrysler providing the hardware for its self-driving car fleet. Chinese IT giant Baidu is taking a similar route, as is Aurora, a start-up launched by former Google CTO Chris Urmson.

Safety first: more autonomous tech in Formula 1

Driverless mobility on the race track – not exactly a novelty anymore. We’ve covered Roborace before, the first racing competition for driverless cars. But the most popular racing series in the world has so far shied away from autonomous driving technology. But now things are starting to change at Formula 1. Well, a little.

Human drivers will remain at the core of Formula 1. But Marcin Budkowski, the head of the FIA's technical department just hinted that driverless safety cars could soon hit the race courses. "It would promote a technology about which there is a bit of scepticism and, instead, it could be shown that it works,” Budkowski told Autosport. While FIA seems seriously interested in exploring the technology, Budkowski feels that Formula 1 watchers might be less intrigued: "We must be aware of the attraction of F1 race cars without drivers: the engineers would love it, but not the fans." No arguing with that. However, a driverless safety car – maybe even a convertible – would sure be a cool promo. And we are predicting that advertising spaces on such a vehicle would be quite popular among sponsors.

Join us at IAA to discuss the ethics of automated driving: what are machines allowed to decide?

Prof Merkel, Dr Damasky and Dr Gress will debate the ethics of driverless cars.

Our Formula 1 example shows: acceptance of driverless technology will take time and for some, a bit of persuasion. Our recent user analysis debate showed that those efforts are necessary to avoid a growing rift in society – between those who ”responsibly” use driverless cars and those who still “irresponsibly” drive manually – and some people even fearing a sort of conspiracy.

In that regard, setting ethical guidelines for driverless cars is a crucial milestone. In a world’s-first, the German government just announced it will implement guidelines devised by an expert panel in June. Its key proposal: prioritizing human life over the destruction of property. Will the rules solve every ethical dilemma you could think of? Probably not. But they are an important signal to debate and create a common understanding of if, how and when to introduce highly automated or even autonomous vehicles.

We at 2025AD would also like to fuel this discussion. That’s why at this year’s International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt, we will hold a top-level panel discussion on the ethical questions surrounding autonomous driving. Dr Joachim Damasky (VDA / German Association of the Automotive Industry) and Prof. Reinhard Merkel, renowned expert on in criminal law and philosophy of law will discuss what to allow machines to decide with the public. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Felix Gress, responsible for Communications worldwide at Continental AG and will take place at New Mobility World on Saturday, September 16. Make sure to stop by. More information to follow soon!

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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