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Apple wanted spherical wheels for its autonomous car

By August 24, 2017No Comments

Apple may be scaling back its self-driving car plans, but the company had some seriously off-beat ideas for what the autonomous vehicle of the future might look like. Reports earlier in the year suggested Apple had realized the scale of the challenge it was facing, were it to try to develop its own vehicle from scratch, with leaks earlier in the week indicating a “more modest” plan was now underway. That will include a self-driving shuttle for Apple employees, but there’s another far more interesting tidbit.

According to the NY Times, Apple wasn’t limiting its out-of-the-box thinking just to replacing the driver. “Project Titan”, as the endeavor was known internally, saw Apple engineers looking at cleaner, more pleasing ways to tackle a number of automotive parts that might normally go unaddressed. That apparently included motorized car doors that operated silently, a flush-fitting LIDAR sensor for more discreet laser range-finding for autonomous systems, and an augmented reality dashboard.

One feature being explored, though, could’ve been a real game-changer. One part of the Titan team was supposedly looking at spherical wheels, which would be able to rotate in every direction rather than just forward and back. Such a design would be preferable “because spherical wheels could allow the car better lateral movement,” the newspaper reports.

That never panned out, though, potentially because the technical issues around such wheels would simply be too great – not to mention arguably unwise to tackle given Apple’s inexperience in the auto industry. We’ve already seen what happens when a relative newcomer like Tesla tries to do too much in one new vehicle, after all. The “Falcon Wing” doors on the Model X were ambitious and plagued with issues at the SUV’s launch, with Elon Musk later conceding that the company tried to do too much at once.

Apple isn’t the first to think about spherical tires, of course. They’ve been featured in a number of science fiction movies, most memorably I, Robot back in 2004, which featured Audi’s RSQ concept. Then, the self-driving coupe was able to use its bulbous wheels to drive sideways, including up walls.

Last year, meanwhile, Goodyear showed off a spherical tire idea of its own. Dubbed Eagle-360, the tires would each use magnetic levitation within the wheel-arch, and also include a bevy of sensors that could feed back information about road surface conditions to make the self-driving AI a better driver.

Goodyear was blunt about the wheels just being the stuff of concept for the moment, but the idea of having a massive trackball or four under your car seems unlikely to go away entirely. Being able to move laterally would certainly make parking in narrow spaces easier, not to mention allow autonomous parking garages more flexibility to shuffle vehicles around.