Apple announced plenty of sweet new tech at the “By innovation only” event at its Cupertino HQ on September 10, but there was an eyebrow-raising no-show of a product that could soon revolutionize cyclist safety on the roads and also kill bike theft, among many other wonders.
However, the widely trailed unveiling of the Apple Tag tracking device did not happen, and the happy-clappy crowd had to make do with official reveals of the photographically-advanced but not-at-all-surprising iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro series of smartphones.
The normally two-hour product presentation was short by about 20 minutes, pointing to a missing segment. This, believe commentators, should have been the slot where the virtual curtain was pulled back on the Apple Tag, an ultra-accurate location tracking beacon similar to the plastic Bluetooth-equipped Tile device that launched via crowdfunding in 2013 and which can be attached to items such as keys for easy re-locating via an app.
Tile was certainly expecting an Apple Tag product unveil at the Cupertino event because the Californian startup, based 25 miles north of Apple, launched a slew of its own announcements readying for battle with the world’s most valuable company.
And Apple itself—almost—gave the game away. During Phil Schiller’s presentation, a slide briefly flagged the existence of a powerful new proprietary chip. The mysterious U1 chip was not mentioned from the stage, but the blink-and-you-missed-it inclusion pointed to what should have been an announcement later in the presentation, possibly even to be revealed by Apple CEO Tim Cook.
As discovered by 9to5Mac’s Gui Rambo in April, the U1 chip has spatial awareness thanks to better-than-Bluetooth Ultra-Wideband radio technology. As well as beefing up Apple’s proximity-aware AirDrop file sharer the Apple-designed chip will supercharge the “Find My” app so it can locate—with super 3D precision—not just lost or stolen iPhones and Apple laptops but also Apple Tags.
The U1-upgraded iOS 13 Find My app—codenamed “GreenTorch”—will use the hundreds of millions of iPhones around the world as a global detector network, pinpointing the exact location of Apple Tags, and all without requiring Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity.
Great for finding lost keys or stolen wallets—as per Tile—but the plastic or aluminum Tags will also be able to track the exact location of, say, stolen bicycles, and alert iPhone users to the theft in the first place.
And don’t think you’ll have to attach these Tile-beaters to your belongings—it’s likely that Apple will license the tech to be used in other products, including bicycles. It’s highly likely that Apple is already talking to bicycle companies—and makers of plenty of other products—to securely embed Tags.
Tags will be battery powered but the batteries will likely last for many months or could be forever topped up using ambient radio frequencies. In marketing materials released at the September 10 event, Apple said the U1 chip uses “Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness—allowing iPhone 11 to precisely locate other U1‑equipped Apple devices. Think GPS at the scale of your living room.”
Ultra-Wideband—UWB for short—uses “time-of-flight” calculations to measure distance, working out how long it takes a signal to be sent to a device and then bounced back. Directional antennae also mean that a UWB device can determine not just distance but also direction: the Tag will flag, for example, that it is four inches away to the right. And augmented reality on your iPhone will display not just a flat map but also 3D location markers.
It’s entirely possible that bicycles—and cars, cameras and almost everything else you own—will not just be tracked by Tags but also “unlock” them, too. So, no more carrying heavy U-locks and chains to secure your bike. Standing next to your pride and joy, with your iPhone 11 in your pocket or your Apple Watch Series 6 on your wrist, would electronically enable it for use. (And lock the bike when you dip into Starbucks for your pumpkin spice latte.)
So far so sci-fi, but there’s more: UWB could also be used to track individual users and, in theory, iPhone-carrying cyclists protected by a bunch of Tags could be identified and always avoided by UWB-equipped cars.
In effect, Tag-packing cyclists would ride with personal radar and protective forcefields, and couldn’t be squished by those cars and trucks with UWB capabilities. This would be cyclist—and pedestrian—detection on steroids.
No more road deaths! But hang on, only Tag-owners would ride with this protection? This raises obvious equity issues: rich cyclists would be safe on the roads (that is if all motor vehicles became equipped with UWB tech, which isn’t likely to happen all at once) but poor cyclists, unable to afford iPhones and Tag subscriptions, would continue to be “invisible” and therefore continue to be at risk of road squishings?
Clearly, to say the very least, “beaconization” for some but not all is ethically troublesome.
Apple is not the only player. The auto and telecommunications industries, in cahoots with bicycle makers, have been jointly working on “bicycle-to-vehicle” (B2V) beacons for some years. Bicycle manufacturers such as Trek are working on B2V systems with Ford and other automakers, and the EU-based World Bicycle Industry Association is in favor of beaconization, with general manager Manuel Marsilio telling attendees at last year’s Geneva Motor Show’s Future Networked Car symposium that “bicycles will definitely have to communicate with other vehicles.”
On paper, beaconization appears to be a—literal—life-saver. Bicycles equipped with UWB and other beacons can be spotted by sensor-equipped cars, and who wouldn’t want to cycle with a device that warned oncoming and following motor vehicles that you were riding nearby and needed to be avoided? However, only the beacon-equipped will be spotted. Those choosing—say, for economic or privacy reasons—not to fit Tag-like beacons will be blamed for being hit by sensor-equipped cars.
And if bicyclists have to ride with Tags or be blamed for their own deaths, the logical next step is for pedestrians also to sport UWB technology, perhaps with canine-style under-the-skin chips, a dystopian vision which has been a reality in Sweden since 2015. 3,000 Swedes chose to be injected with microchips so they could use contactless hand gestures to pay for goods.
The auto industry is very keen to get pedestrians and cyclists to transmit real-time location information because it’s probably the only way that autonomous vehicles (AVs) could currently operate in cities. Lidar, 360-degree cameras, and other “smart” technologies cannot yet give advance warning of the child running out from behind parked cars.
Millions of posts, poles, and signs have already been equipped with low-power transponders so they can be detected by today’s sensor-equipped cars and tomorrow’s AVs. This chipping of every item of road furniture is the vital part of a burgeoning new sector: Intelligent Transport Systems or ITS.
“The cooperative element enabled by digital connectivity will significantly improve road safety and traffic efficiency by helping cyclists and the other road users to take the right decision and adapt to the traffic situations,” the World Bicycle Industry Association’s Marsilio told the Future Networked Car in March 2018.
Marsilio told automotive leaders that “some cyclists know how they’re supposed to behave and sometimes, unfortunately, they don’t want to behave in a safe and respectful way. Some drivers don’t know how to properly share the road with cyclists.”
He added: “Moreover, infrastructure in many places doesn’t facilitate peaceful coexistence on the same roadways between cars and cyclists, therefore, the bicycle industry has started to work on creating [artificial intelligence]-based bicycle-to-vehicle communication systems to help drivers get alerts.”
Marsilio said that the bicycle industry is working on tech with open standards and that “bicycles will definitely have to communicate with the other vehicles as well as with infrastructure.”
Continuing, he said: “Bicycles of the near future will have sensors that will allow cyclists to be detected by car drivers. It’s not a [case] of putting a chip in bodies or to force everybody to have a smart watch, the main idea is to have bicycles equipped with the necessary equipment in order to be able to be connected with all vehicles.”
Academic Peter Norton fears that history is about to repeat itself, with the motor industry trying to redefine again what streets are for and who should be using them. Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, told me last year:
“The tech is new, but it’s a rerun of early 20th Century efforts to regiment road users ostensibly for everyone’s safety, but inevitably also to subordinate all road users to those who feed its biggest market.”
While many will fret about Apple’s UWB technology, many more will likely welcome the convenience that Tags will bring to their lives. Apple fans will be quick adopters of the technology when it is eventually launched. But for all of the many benefits of Apple Tags—from indoor turn-by-turn navigation to saving lives on the road—there’s also a worrying and potential dystopian aspect.
The famous Ridley-Scott-directed Orwellian TV advertisement which launched the original Apple Macintosh personal computer in 1984 showed a crowd of human automatons transfixed by an autocrat on a large screen but about to be awakened by a hammer-throwing woman in sports gear—with Tags is Apple moving closer to becoming the all-seeing Big Brother it was supposed to smash?