Apple’s LIDAR Patent Adds Another Piece to Rumored Car Offering

Apple will likely face a lot of competition if it decides to get on the road.

Photo by Prasad Panchakshari via Unsplash

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As it stands, not much is known about Apple’s automotive ambitions. But a recent patent may shed light on its car’s autonomous capabilities. 

The company filed a patent application for a “lidar system with enhanced performance.” LIDAR, which stands for “Light Detection and Ranging,” is a vital component in making autonomous vehicles work properly. 

To put it simply, Apple’s filing describes a system which generates a more detailed and precise “depth map” of the scene around it, by optimizing the reception and processing of reflected light from its surroundings. This depth map gives a vehicle a better 3D representation of its environment.

Apple’s LIDAR system first transmits a series of light pulses in the scene surrounding it. Several photodetectors then collect the light that is reflected from these pulses, then use that data to output signals to a receiver called a “shutter.” The shutter then organizes the signals into what Apple calls a “chirp period,” or specific time intervals during which the receiver makes alterations.

After the shutter alters those signals, a “readout circuit” digitizes these signals and inputs them  into different “sampling windows,” or time slots synchronized with those chirp periods to more efficiently capture and process the reflected light. Finally, all of this information is sent to a processor, which creates the final product of a 3D depth map. 

While this sounds quite technical, the outcome is simple: Apple’s tech allows an autonomous vehicle to have more accurate perception and see its surroundings with a higher resolution through more efficient processing of light, which thereby helps a self-driving car make better decisions on the road. This also helps the LIDAR system better process ambient light, like sunlight. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Rumors of an Apple-branded vehicle have been floating around for years. The company has filed for hundreds of patents related to so-called Project Titan, its vehicle project, including windows, seats and suspensions, security systems and autonomous capabilities, a “user tracking” seat headrest for better audio control and digital car keys

Apple hasn’t officially released any information on its vehicle’s debut. But the company reportedly aims to launch the vehicle by 2026, and is aiming for a price point of less than $100,000. 

While no official details have been released, given what’s known about Apple’s patent history and current product lineup, adding a vehicle would likely be an extension of its closed-off and well-connected device ecosystem, said Bob Bilbruck, CEO of consulting firm Captjur. That means that unlike the way it’s licensed out CarPlay to other automakers, patents like this likely will be kept close to the vest, he said. 

“Apple could have licensed all kinds of technologies they had early on in the phone space,” said Bilbruck. “But that’s not their style. They want to own the platform. They want everything to be their own ecosystem, and they want control. That’s what they want to do with the car space also.” 
But Apple has some serious competition if it wants to get on the road, said Bilbruck. For one, established car brands like Ford, Honda and GM already represent “embedded incumbents,” he said. But, especially in terms of in-car entertainment and autonomous vehicles, “Tesla is an 800-pound gorilla already,” said Bilbruck.