A new name just showed up on California’s growing list of companies allowed to test autonomous vehicles in the state: Apple.
To date, the tech giant has been infuriatingly secretive about it’s efforts to build a self-driving car, code named Project Titan. Apple has been working on Project Titan for several years, but has never formally acknowledged it. Lately, the autonomous car project seems to be in flux. Recent reporting suggests that the company is no longer attempting to build its own autonomous, electric car to compete with companies like Tesla, but is instead focused on developing self-driving software it can deploy in partnership with existing carmakers.
Now that it has its permit, the company appears poised to begin testing its software on public roads in California. A company source told Bloomberg that autonomous vehicle testing would begin “soon,” but declined to specify any further.
According to the California DMV, Apple has three vehicles registered under the autonomous driving permit, all of which are 2015 Lexus RX crossovers. In addition, Apple has six drivers permitted to operate the vehicles. In the early days of its self-driving program, Google used Lexus SUVs outfitted with cameras and laser sensors.
Late last year, Apple submitted a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in which it said that it was “investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.” At the time, it was seen as the strongest hint that Apple was still committed to self-driving technology.
Lately, California is crawling with self-driving cars. Everyone from Uber to Waymo (a spinoff of Google) to General Motors has been testing their autonomous cars in the Golden State.
California requires companies that want to test autonomous vehicles on the roads to register for an autonomous driving permit. As part of this program, companies are also required to report their disengagement rates to the DMV, which then makes those numbers public. This requirement was likely a factor in Uber’s high-profile refusal to obtain an autonomous permit, resulting in the DMV revoking the ride-hail company’s vehicle registration for its self-driving cars. The ride-hailing company has since acquiesced and signed up for the permit.
Whether Apple is actively testing autonomous vehicles, though, remains to be seen. Many companies sign up for the permit, but report no miles driven. We’ll know more about Apple’s secretive efforts after the company files its first report.
An Apple spokesperson declined to comment about the permit, referring instead to the company’s statement from December when it submitted its letter to the federal government. That statement read, “We’ve provided comments to NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems. There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation, so we want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry.”