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Appearances Suggest That Apple’s Autonomous-Car Endeavor Is Lacking

With dated-looking cars and top engineers working as safety drivers, the project still looks to be in its early stages.

Apple’s desire to build an autonomous car is no secret, but until recently it’s been hard to unearth many details about its research. Now that’s changed, and what we’ve learned suggests that Apple is firmly on its back foot.

In the middle of April, the California Department of Motor Vehicles granted Apple a license to begin testing autonomous vehicles on the state’s highways. It was pretty late to the show—29 other companies have already started testing driverless cars there. But knowing Apple, it could have developed a killer product behind closed doors and then wowed the world with a big reveal.

So far, that’s not been the case. A first clue came earlier this week, when the Wall Street Journal published a list of names of the engineers who would sit behind the wheel as safety drivers during the firm’s tests. Among them was a selection of engineering PhDs who have worked on robotics and autonomy projects at NASA, its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Bosch.

The Journal posits that having such intellect at the wheel is a sign that tests are in their infancy. Meanwhile, Business Insider claims that Apple’s new director of AI, Ruslan Salakhutdinov, is involved in the hiring process for new autonomy engineers—which also suggests that the company isn’t as far along in building out its team as we might have expected.

And a kicker: images acquired of Apple’s autonomous Lexus as it drove around Silicon Valley. While no autonomous car is yet a sleek-looking object, Apple’s vehicle doesn’t look to be from 2017. Decked in scaffolds front, rear, and top to hold many of its sensors, it bears rather more in common with some of the vehicles that rolled into the DARPA Urban Challenge back in 2007 than it does with those being tested by Waymo or Uber.

Still, a little over six months ago, reports swirled that Apple’s driverless-car project was on the ropes, with senior management issuing a firm deadline of late 2017 by which to show that the technology was worth pursuing. With that threat looming over the team, perhaps making the car look nice was way down the list.

(Read more: Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, “Apple’s AI Director: Here’s How to Supercharge Deep Learning,” “Apple’s Car Plans Are on the Ropes,” How Might Apple Manufacture a Car?”)

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