iPad Pro is Apple Car’s testbed

Michael Schmidt
Mar 19 · 3 min read

Thoughts on Apple Car, Part 139

Apple keeps pushing the iPad Pro to prepare for an eventual Apple Car launch. Parts of what would make an autonomous car great have been coming up in iPad Pro features over the last couple of years.

First was the FaceID feature enhancement that enables iPad to read a face from all orientations. This makes a perfect case for FaceID being the “key” to your car in the future, unlocking it when approaching just by looking at it.

Another big move came yesterday, when Apple announced a new camera system in the updated iPad Pro, which hosts a LiDAR sensor.

LiDAR was one of the key technologies Apple has been reportedly working on, so far as even engineers who left in the meantime continued working on it:

Now it seems Apple moves forward training the very sensors it would later need in a car — but in today’s reality. What Tesla is doing with its cars on the road, and what Google is doing with Waymo, Apple is doing with iDevices in people’s hands.

What does a LiDAR sensor in an iPad Pro mean for Apple Car?

Apple describes the new feature on its website as follows:

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is used to determine distance by measuring how long it takes light to reach an object and reflect back. It is so advanced, it’s being used by NASA for the next Mars landing mission. And it’s now been engineered to fit in the thin and light iPad Pro.

The custom-designed LiDAR Scanner uses direct time of flight to measure reflected light from up to five meters away, both indoors and out. It works at the photon level, operates at nanosecond speeds, and opens up tremendous possibilities for augmented reality and beyond.

Five meters is certainly a restriction at the moment, the range of the sensor would need to be enhanced by a factor of 10 at least when it comes to driving. But it’s a start and will provide Apple with enough data to improve its hardware and software components of the sensor.

The LiDAR Scanner works with the pro cameras, motion sensors, and frameworks in iPadOS to measure depth. This combination of hardware, software, and unprecedented innovation makes iPad Pro the world’s best device for augmented reality.

This is classic Apple. Start with a narrow use case (in this case AR) to make sense of a new technology. Just remember how they introduced Multi-Touch as a better way to scroll lists and zoom images. Today, touch is being used for so much more, including Apple Pencil. But it made sense to focus on a narrow use case back when it was introduced.

The same is true for LiDAR: This is not just about AR, even when this is the main use case Apple is advertising at the moment. The technology itself however, will be used for much more than that. It is the most vital component of a future Apple Car.

However, AR will also be big in Apple Car. Again, Apple used iPad Pro to think forward of how AR may impact the user experience when driving in an autonomous vehicle.

This becomes more and more interesting.

Michael Schmidt

Written by

Director Consulting at Virtual Identity. I spent a decade on automotive brands in digital, and blog about brand strategy, #ubx and #AppleCar / #ProjectTitan.

Thoughts on Apple Car

Conceptualizations on the future car, a.o. shared by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple/Google/Dropbox designer Ryhan Hassan, Lyft and Snap VC investor Alex Giannikoulis, Wristly founder Bernard Desarnauts, and CaminaLab/Drivania/Shotl founder Gerard Martret.

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