Apple's self-driving car tech just got caught on camera

Apple may not be making its own cars, but its mysterious Project Titan work continues as the company refines software and systems for other autonomous vehicles. The Cupertino firm has been plying the local streets for some time now with its Titan-topped test mules, bristling with LIDAR and more. Now, we've got what's arguably the best view of the current Project Titan hardware in the wild, and it comes courtesy of a rival.

MacCallister Higgins is co-founder of Voyage, a self-driving vehicle startup that's trying to commercialize the technology for a fleet of autonomous taxis. Formed in April this year, Voyage already has a fleet underway in a retirement community in San Jose, CA. There three self-driving cars can be summoned by the 4,000+ residents via a smartphone app, and taken around the 15 miles of closed roads.

Over on Higgins' Twitter account, however, he shared an encounter with another autonomous project: Apple's Project Titan. Describing the vehicle – a Lexus RX SUV, topped with a complex sensor array – as "The Thing," Higgins shot a brief video of some of the custom hardware that's been mounted to to the top.

The Titan mule certainly has a good perspective of the world around it. Higgins counts six LIDAR sensors – the laser rangefinders that allow autonomous cars to build up 3D point clouds of the environment, from which obstacles, other vehicles, and pedestrians can be identified – at the rear and another six at the front. They're Velodyne units, though he points out that it appears from how they're mounted that they're unlikely to individually deliver the full 360-degree coverage each is technically capable of.

That might be by design, of course. If Apple is looking to supply mainstream automakers with software for advanced driving technologies, it needs to take into account the sort of sensors they'll be commercializing. Although elaborate sensor stacks are commonplace on test vehicles, production cars will need to be more discreet.

Indeed, Velodyne already has what the LIDAR specialist has promised will be a much more affordable sensor, though it comes with a narrower field of view than more expensive models. The upshot is that it can be integrated in a cleaner fashion into bodywork or bumpers. If Apple's software is to work effectively, it'll need to be compliant with systems that have multiple sensors each with a narrower view of the world.

Meanwhile Higgins also comments on the size of the roof-mounted Project Titan system. While large, he estimates that the scale is probably because "the majority of the compute stack is likely located inside the roof unit." That would allow Apple to move the array between cars more readily. It's a far more self-contained approach than earlier prototypes spotted in the wild.

Of course, what Apple will do with all this Titan technology remains to be seen. CEO Tim Cook has already confirmed that it's exploring autonomous systems – something public records showing Apple had applied for test permits had already let out the bag – though before that we could see technologies more in line with driver-assistance than fully driverless vehicles.