Apple Car: Patent Hints That Self-Driving Vehicle Is Taking the Safe Route

It might come with one, not-so-futuristic design choice.

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Apple is trying to muscle its way into the budding self-driving car industry. But while it does seem like the company’s “Project Titan” autonomous vehicle initiative — expected to be unveiled in 2025 — remains underway, Apple’s latest automotive-related patent suggests the company could seriously disappoint electrification proponents.

Early reports and rumors about Apple’s car have long suggested that it would be an all-electric vehicle with a suite of future-looking features. Previous patent documents have hinted that Apple will use augmented reality technology to overlay its windshield, for example, and Apple has also patented a set of smart headlights that recognize street signs and traffic signals to illuminate them better.

But along with these mind-boggling capabilities, Apple’s self driving car could still be decidedly old-fashioned in one (rather important, some would argue) respect: An at least partially fossil fuel-burning engine.

This is according to a recent patent application filed to the Untied States Patent and Trademark Office on April 25, where the company describes plans for a vehicle thermal management system for a “battery-powered electric or hybrid vehicles.” The documentation doesn’t mention anything about a self-driving car, but Project Titan is the only automobile venture the company is reported to be testing and developing new technology for.

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A schematic of one example of a thermal management system.

Specifically, the opening text of the patent application touches on the problem of range anxiety, or the fear that car loses power before the driver reaches their destination. It then proposes a new kind of cooling system as a potential solution to range anxiety by allowing drivers to manage the car’s internal temperature without consuming more power. The patent explicitly leaves the possibility that Apple might launch a hybrid car or an electric one.

Here’s a snippet from the opening background text of the patent:

“Battery-powered electric or hybrid vehicles have become an increasingly popular choice by consumers for their fuel efficiency and low impact on the environment. With limits in technology on battery performance and consumer demand for maximum range between vehicle charging, there is an increased need for more efficient power management systems”

It goes on to describe how the system could diffuse the heat it generates by using a series of “refrigerant subsystems,” or loops, for the battery. One example suggested is a liquid cooled gas cooler (LCGC) that could be used to draw heat out from the battery and then reuse it in, say, a seat warmer.

Taken together, the patent describes a novel method for dedicating less of a car battery’s overall energy consumption to thermal management, which would obviously add to its total range. But the explicit mention of hybrid is still very disappointing: The Wall Street Journal spent nearly two years reporting that Apple was developing an electric car, at one point writing that the team had gotten the green-light to expand the team to roughly 1,800 people.

While Project Titan’s many pivots have been well-documented, Apple was still believed to be working on an electric vehicle. Most recently, the German publication Manager Magazin reported that the Apple car would be an electric van on Feb. 21, 2019 (Apple has a poorly-kept secret of an office in Berlin, Germany which is reportedly the location for a lot of its automotive efforts).

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An unofficial  render of what Project  Titan could come out looking like.

While it’s long been a possibility Project Titan would simply license Apple-branded automotive tech to other companies, the famous Apple analyst Ming Chi Kuo reiterated that Apple would release a car just last summer. Kuo’s projection was still a long way off, between 2023 and 2025, but still seemed to imply that a full fledged car was in the works, not a suite of peripherals.

But would Apple really launch a hybrid? It seems pretty anachronistic. Electric car sales almost doubled in the United States between 2017 and 2018, according to Inside EVs. Americans have long been ambivalent about hybrids.

An April 17 Reuters report also stated that Apple is demanding a “revolutionary design,” from at least four four unnamed suppliers. The Manager Magazin report claimed not only that an “electric van prototype” was in the works, but that it would come with black and silver paint choices and be “designed in the typical industrial design of the iPhone.”

Apple might opt for autonomy and a game-changing form factor to be the Apple Car’s chief selling points. But the April 25 patent still cast some doubt about whether or not Project Titan will end up being all-electric. And as electric cars increasingly hit roads, it’s hard to see how innovative a non-electric automotive launch could really be.