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Tim Cook confirms Apple is working on AI software for self-driving cars

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Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke about autonomous driving for the first time, revealing his company downsized its ambitions from building a full-fledged self-driving car to solely focusing on AI systems.

In a post-Worldwide Developers Conference interview with Bloomberg from last week released Tuesday, Cook said Apple is currently working on the “mother of all AI projects.”

“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,” said Cook. “It’s probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on. Autonomy is something that’s incredibly exciting for us and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Apple’s autonomous driving projects, dubbed Project Titan, started around 2014 to position the Cupertino-based company within the self-driving car race in Silicon Valley involving Google and Uber. After hiring over 1,000 engineers and seeing ballooning costs in its first two years, Apple dialed back Project Titan in 2016, cutting hundreds of workers out of the project and ditching its dreams of building an Apple car.

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Instead, Apple partnered with car makers like Lexus to work on the brains of a smart car. In April, Apple secured a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test three self-driving Lexus SUVs on Bay Area streets.

Cook spoke briefly with Bloomberg about how the nexus of self-driving technology, electric cars and ride-hailing can revolutionize how people and goods are transported. To get a foot in the ride-hailing game, Apple invested $1 billion to Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-sharing service, in 2016.

“There is a major disruption looming there,” said Cook. “You’ve got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame.”

Alongside Apple, Google via Waymo, Lyft and Uber all are competing to become the first Silicon Valley company to launch a self-driving car. Waymo retired its petite but cute “Firefly” model cars on Monday to make room for minivans built by Chrysler.

Playing catch-up, Lyft partnered with Waymo, Jaguar, General Motoros and nuTonomy, a self-driving car startup, to participate in the race for self-driving cars without having to spend millions of engineers and cars.

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Uber has its own partnership with Ford, but its efforts screeched to a near-halt in the past few months thanks to a high-profile lawsuit with Google, who argue Uber’s former head of self-driving technology Anthony Levandowski stole trade secrets from Google when he worked there. Levandowski was fired by Uber last month for refusing to cooperate with the judge’s requests.

With many moving parts all around Silicon Valley, Cook did not count Apple out from returning into building its own self-driving car.

“We’ll see where it takes us,” Cook said. “We’re not really saying from a product point of view what we will do.”

Photo: Apple CEOTim Cook speaks during an Apple event in San Francisco in 2015.  (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Tags: Apple, self-driving car, Tim Cook, Uber

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