Apple's Autonomous Cars Need Much More Human Help Than Its Rivals

(Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc.’s autonomous test vehicles are relying on significantly more human intervention than Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo or General Motors Co.’s Cruise cars, an indication the iPhone maker may lag well behind on the technology.

Test drivers disengaged the autonomous mode on Apple’s cars once almost every mile, based on data the company disclosed in an annual report to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Waymo’s cars went about 11,017 miles between disengagements, and Cruise’s went 5,205 miles.

Apple's Autonomous Cars Need Much More Human Help Than Its Rivals

The California reports, which measure how many times human safety drivers take back control or interfere with self-driving systems, are both rare and incomplete snapshots of how companies’ autonomous cars are coming along. Other states, including Arizona and Florida, have lured automakers, tech giants and startups to test elsewhere in part by refraining from disclosure requirements.

An Apple spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The company, which started working on self-driving technology years after Waymo and others, has been critical of California’s disengagement-reporting system.

Apple's Autonomous Cars Need Much More Human Help Than Its Rivals

Although access to data on the safety of test vehicles is key for the public to accept the technology, Apple told the DMV in April 2017 that its reporting requirements “do not achieve this result.” It suggested including metrics such as successfully prevented crashes. Companies that report to California also have made the argument that not all miles they test drive are comparable -- highway driving on sunny freeways is much easier than navigating city traffic or snowy mountain passes.

While Apple’s results suggest the company may be a straggler, its self-driving cars haven’t been involved in significant reported accidents. The cars have been involved in minor collisions that were determined to be the fault of other vehicles. Uber Technologies Inc. suspended autonomous testing for much of last year after one of its vehicles killed a pedestrian in Arizona last March.

Apple's Autonomous Cars Need Much More Human Help Than Its Rivals

Apple first put its cars on public roads in spring 2017. The company has been working on the technology since around 2015, when it initiated Project Titan, which began as a plan to build an autonomous electric car to compete with Tesla Inc. By the following year, Apple had scaled back from plans to build a car, choosing to instead focus on self-driving technology.

In 2017, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook told Bloomberg Television that the company’s work on autonomous systems is the “the mother of all AI projects” and said it’s probably one of the most difficult artificial intelligence efforts to work on. Last year, the company hired Doug Field, a former chief engineer for Tesla, to oversee its project alongside Bob Mansfield, who used to be senior vice president of hardware engineering.

Apple's Autonomous Cars Need Much More Human Help Than Its Rivals

In January, Apple scaled back Project Titan again, laying off some employees and assigning others to different artificial intelligence teams within the company. Over the course of the last six months, two employees on the team allegedly attempted to steal trade secrets for China-based self-driving car companies. According to related lawsuits, Apple has about 1,200 people working on the project.

Zoox Inc., the Silicon Valley startup that’s hired away engineers from the likes of Apple, Google and Tesla, reported 1,922 miles between disengagements. Nuro, which just secured $940 million in financing from the SoftBank Vision Fund, had vehicles travel about 1,028 miles between driver interventions.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.