What is more worth looking forward to than the iPhone 12 is Apple’s electric car
Mobile phones, tablet computers, notebooks, and a huge software ecosystem support Apple's market value of two trillion US dollars, and it is the world's largest technology company. But Apple is obviously not satisfied with this, it is still looking for the next growth point besides mobile phones.
VR and AR are both fields with great potential, but limited by technology and ecology, they cannot be applied on a large scale. But electric cars, which are developing rapidly, may be the best area for Apple to enter the market now.
Apple's "coveting" of the auto industry has long been nothing new, but the government has always kept it under cover, and no substantive news has been released. Even for a period of time, the news that Apple's car-building project was closed.
Now, the annual Apple conference has basically been exposed by various big V before the opening, and there is almost no mystery at all. The product "automobile" is the only product whose confidentiality has been done so well, so far I have not seen any reliable predictions.
Apple built a car, the project code is "Titan"
In February 2015, a rumor that Apple was engaged in an electric car project spread. In order to form a team, Apple also poached many talents from Tesla.
In October of that year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said when talking about the automotive industry: "This industry seems to be undergoing tremendous changes, and we will wait and see. I do think the industry is at an inflection point where huge changes are taking place." Cook also pointed out. , In the entire system architecture of the future automobile, the importance of software is increasing day by day. Today, five years later, this view is recognized by more and more people in the industry.
In 2016, Apple's car-making project called "Titan" had a real hammer. The source of the revelations is Musk, the CEO of Tesla, who was poached by a large number of people. He said that Apple may build a compelling electric car: "If you hire more than a thousand engineers to complete this work, it will be difficult to hide it."
However, the Titan project was not as smooth as expected. Perhaps it is the realization that building a car is an extremely difficult and complicated thing. Starting in 2017, the focus of the Titan project has shifted to "autonomous driving", putting the development of autonomous driving software first. Also from this year, Cook publicly acknowledged the fact that Apple is developing autonomous driving technology.
Since the end of 2017, Apple has gradually begun to disclose patents: in 2018 and 2019, the number was 31 and 32 respectively. The year 2020 has not ended. Apple has applied for 28 patents related to automobiles:
Apple, which started building cars in 2015, has gradually begun to exert its strength in the last three years. The Titan Project has become an open secret.
In terms of categories, we temporarily divide patents into three categories: autonomous driving, vehicle shape and cockpit, and novelty experiences. Among the three categories, the number of patents related to the appearance of the vehicle and the cockpit is the largest. A large part of the patents are related to the way the driver or passenger interacts with the car, which is also closely related to autonomous driving:
However, the development of Project Titan has not been smooth sailing.
In the process of transforming to autonomous driving, Apple laid off dozens of employees. Since then, 400 employees have been laid off in 2019 and 2020. The project leader has changed many times. It can be seen that Apple's plans for cars are vacillating.
However, judging from the patents applied for, instead of stagnating, Apple's car making has become clearer. Among the 92 patents currently published, some features of Apple cars can also be roughly outlined by people.
iCar, what kind of car is it?
What does an Apple car look like? Will the interaction in the car be as smooth as we operate the iPhone and the user experience is excellent?
First of all, it is completely certain that Apple cars will have AR (augmented reality) windshields.
AR has long been well known by technology enthusiasts. For car fans, there are many "precedents" for the combination of AR and windshield, namely AR-HUD. The full name of HUD is Head Up Display. It can project important information during driving, such as speed and navigation signs, on the windshield in front of the driver. Essentially, it is for driving safety and prevents the driver from bowing or turning. Look at the other screens in the car.
Since HUD is a complex component integrating optical design, structural design, ECU design, and software algorithms, the technical threshold is high. Compared with traditional HUD, AR HUD has a stronger sense of technology and a higher degree of integration with road conditions. In the process of popularization, there are still many problems in technology and industrial chain that need to be overcome.
But Apple changed its mindset and regarded the windshield as a "screen." In a patent exposed in 2018, Apple can provide information to the driver or passengers behind the transparent surface by "laying out" a layer of computer images on transparent surfaces such as glass.
Apple car AR windshield concept image｜Patently Apple
Simply put, Apple projects the calculated image (that is, augmented reality) onto the windshield so that drivers can view real-time road conditions and other information. Among the examples given by Apple, augmented reality can be used for real-time navigation of road conditions.
More than that, this windshield can show more. For example, when there are many tall buildings ahead and do not know the specific location, the driver can say "buildings ahead" or use a finger to a certain building ahead. According to the recognition in the car, the windshield can display the specific information of that building and navigate past. ；
The windshield can even show the speed of all vehicles ahead. According to the difference between its own speed and road speed limit, Apple Cars spatial positioning in the environment to calculate the opponent's speed, so that it can not only see the real-time speed of the opponent's vehicle, but also inform the driver whether the vehicle exceeds the road speed limit.
When traveling overseas, if you encounter language barriers, the windshield can translate road signs in real time, which is very friendly to foreign tourists.
In order to prove that Apple really made the windshield into a screen, it also made two more interesting functions. The co-pilot can watch streaming videos on the windshield, and the driver can use Facetime video calls. The former is done by installing a screen in the car on most vehicles, while the latter does not require the driver to use the mobile phone in the car. It is the best proof that Apple wants to use it instead of the screen.
Through AR screen display, you can do a lot of interaction｜Patently Apple
Of course, making the windshield a highly centralized and intelligent device must be connected to any sensor in the car.
According to Apple, the vehicle includes multiple sets of external and internal sensors. The external is responsible for generating environmental data, and the internal is responsible for user data, including visible light cameras, infrared cameras, ultrasonic sensors, depth cameras, and radars. The integration of a large number of devices has more than doubled the difficulty compared to mobile phones, but at the same time the new experience brought can reach new heights.
Apple has already used artificial intelligence in its mobile phones, tablet computers and other devices. The most typical example is that each generation of chips includes a neural network engine, which is convenient for mobile phones to run a large number of AI calculations.
The same goes for cars. In 2018, Apple applied for two patents on neural networks to control self-driving cars. The patent specifically mentions that neural networks can be used for multi-tasking output, including changing lanes, observing pedestrians, motion control, and so on.
This technology does not seem to be difficult to implement now. The biggest use of vehicle-mounted AI chips lies in the real-time identification and analysis of external environmental data and feedback to the vehicle. But these two patents of Apple describe in detail how to achieve, for example, self-driving cars use neural networks to transfer data to multiple tasks, and then each task makes judgments. One example is that when analyzing road images, the data will be fed back to the vehicle navigation system in real time.
Real-time recognition and analysis of images is an "essential skill" for all automated driving today｜Patenty Apple
Navigation can also be well integrated with the AR windshield mentioned above. In a self-driving car, passengers can park the car in the corresponding position as long as they use a combination of gestures and voice. If the position is not accurate, you can also use the iPhone’s virtual joystick to fine-tune it. It sounds similar to Tesla's call mode.
Autonomous driving technology still has huge room for growth. Apple, which started late, does not have much advantage over companies that focus on autonomous driving such as Waymo and Cruise. In California's annual self-driving car road test report, Apple has more than 60 road test vehicles. In contrast, one of the first companies to conduct self-driving road tests, Waymo, has 153 test vehicles.
And the report data shows that Apple is less and less important to autopilot testing, not only has the number of vehicles reduced to 23, but the test mileage has also dropped significantly, from 79745 kilometers to 12140 kilometers.
Under the comparison of pure technical parameters, Apple has not tasted any sweetness, but in its unique advantage-smart devices, the combination with autonomous driving is not interesting.
In a patent published in 2019, Apple moved its hands and feet on the most inconspicuous seat belt. According to the information described in the patent, after adopting the automatic driving mode, users have leisure time in the car, and can communicate with others or watch content. The seat belt plays a role of "operation core" in it.
Many sensors are mounted on a seat belt｜Patently Apple
For example, touch or use gestures to control the sensor settings on the seat belt, you can control the vehicle, including the height of the window, seat position, multimedia player, etc.; the seat belt is also equipped with a microphone and speaker for passengers to talk, and the microphone can also be based on voice Monitor passengers' stress/emotional health; of course, there are safety considerations. Sensors on seat belts can measure passengers' vital signs, including heart rate, body temperature, blood alcohol content, and so on. The safety belt is powered by solar energy. When the vehicle is parked outdoors during the day, it is a good time to "charge" the safety belt.
Vehicle shape and cockpit
This part involves the vehicle itself, and Apple has done a lot of articles both inside and outside the vehicle.
First of all, you can see the human side of Apple on the car door. In addition to the traditional way of opening the door, the door can also be adaptively positioned based on the data of the body sensor. In a narrow parking space, when there are vehicles on both sides, the door can be opened in a sliding manner, as shown in the following figure:
Adaptive door｜Patently Apple
Also made changes are the bumpers on the outside of the vehicle. Unlike traditional fixed bumpers, in the event of a vehicle collision, the bumper of Apple cars can be changed according to the collision to absorb impact and avoid damage to the vehicle.
The bumper adopts an inflatable structure, and compressed gas is injected into it, which can extend the bumper by 20-160mm when inflated. According to the impact reaction, the front end of the bumper reacts differently. When hitting an inclined object, the bumper can adapt to the shape of the object:
Flexible bumper that can change shape｜Patently Apple
From a safety point of view, the bumper is a good entry point, and in the car, Apple has made improvements for safety everywhere.
The design of self-driving vehicles is different from ordinary vehicles. There is no steering wheel, brake accelerator, and two rows of passengers facing each other. At this time, traditional airbags are no longer applicable. For this reason, Apple has redesigned a set of airbag system. When the vehicle collides, an inflatable barrier will pop up on the side window to block passengers.
There is also a simpler way to install airbags on the top of the cockpit or in the seat belts to cushion the impact of vehicle impact. Apple specifically mentioned that traditional airbags may deviate without sufficient response time and cannot fully protect passengers and passengers. The latest design can fully protect passengers from injury.
As mentioned in the "novelty experience", the large number of sensors placed inside and outside the car is not entirely for augmented reality display and autonomous driving. These sensors can determine whether the driver and passenger are in a healthy state, and whether the surrounding environment of the vehicle is safe, all in Apple’s consideration. Within range.
For example, a patent called "Dynamic Element Protection" mentions that if the door is opened after parking, when a bicycle or pedestrian passes by the front and rear of the vehicle, the door will be automatically locked, and the door can not be opened until the danger is removed.
Everything is for safety, and considering user comfort on the basis of safety may be one of Apple's thinking in the automotive industry.
Looking for the next growth
The fact that Apple wanted to build a car had a sign more than ten years ago.
Shortly after launching the iPhone in 2007, Jobs made it clear that he was very interested in Apple cars, and for a time he put the design and manufacture of cars on the plan. At this point in time, it happened to be about the same time as Tesla's first car, the Roadster.
But this plan didn't come to an end in the end. Perhaps Apple had not made up its mind at the time. Perhaps the company saw the huge potential of smartphones and started to invest in mobile phone research and development.
What is certain is that, as one of the world’s most valuable companies, like other giants, the automobile may be the only consumer product market that is larger and more potential than mobile phones, and it is also a new growth that supports the giants. power.
In recent years, both vehicle companies and autonomous driving companies have begun to develop rapidly, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for new players. From the perspective of patents alone, Apple has also accelerated its speed in automobiles, showing a sense of urgency to find new directions before the dividends of mobile phones disappear.
Whether it can catch up with the window is still unknown, but Apple may have its own reasons for choosing the current time point. But if it wants to reproduce the brilliance of leading changes in the industry, Apple must be more decisive and must give people more surprises.