Apple Patent Hints at Autonomous Vehicle Plans

If you can wade through the dense language that makes legalese read like a Dr. Seuss book, perusing patent applications can be an informative way to learn where technology is headed.

When it comes to the future-looking self-driving car, patent applications range from removable steering wheels to driverless off-road trucks to anti-motion sickness technology.

Even if the product or technology described in the patent never comes to fruition, it can still provide valuable insight about the patent applicant’s future goals. And if that applicant happens to be one of the world’s most important tech companies, that insight becomes quite valuable indeed.

So it’s no surprise that a recent patent application from Apple generated a fair amount of attention. In late December, CNBC reported that the US Patent and Trademark Office had published an Apple patent application entitled “Autonomous Navigation System.” The patent, which had been in the works since at least 2015, describes an autonomous system that would learn to navigate a given road autonomously by first being guided through it by a human driver.

“The vehicle includes sensor devices which monitor characteristics of the driving route based on the vehicle being navigated along the driving route,” reads the application. “And an autonomous navigation system which is interoperable with the sensor devices to: implement a succession of updates to a virtual characterization of the driving route, based on monitoring a succession of manual navigations of the vehicle along the driving route, associate a confidence indicator with the virtual characterization… and enable autonomous navigation of the vehicle along the driving route.”

While a “virtual characterization of [a] driving route,” may sound an awful lot like the digital maps that many consider to be a fundamental component of a successful autonomous vehicle, the patent positions its technology as something of a correction to digital mapping in its current form.

“The development of such a map can require extensive expenditures of time and effort,” the patent reads. “In addition… such a map can unexpectedly become obsolete and unusable for safe autonomous navigation of a route.”

These are certainly valid criticisms of the limits of digital mapping for autonomous vehicles. But those holes in the capabilities of mapping are exactly why very few AV developers have chosen to build their vehicles to rely solely on mapping; most are equipped with mapping capabilities and a suite of physical sensors, each of which covers up the deficiencies of the other. And given that its “virtual characterizations” would be built off of previous trips through given stretches of road, it’s unclear how such a system would be any less vulnerable to sudden obsolescence than a conventional digital map.

Regardless, the patent application signals that Apple is still very much in the autonomous vehicle game.

Even though Apple scaled back plans for Project Titan, an effort to develop a self-driving car from the ground up, news continues to emerge out of Cupertino about new AV developments. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the self-driving revolution won’t involve Apple in some form.

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