SAN FRANCISCO — Much-discussed and sometimes despaired of, there's finally official word that Apple is working on a self-driving car, joining the dozens of other tech and auto companies approved to test autonomous vehicles in California.
The Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant has long been rumored to be working on its own autonomous car as part of an initiative called Project Titan, but has never officially confirmed its plans.
Apple was so mum about the project that some thought it may have been shuttered, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader.
However, on Friday the company appeared on the state's Department of Motor Vehicle's list of approved applicants to test autonomous vehicles. That list had already included companies such as Tesla, Google and Uber, along with car makers including BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen.
“For a company that has yet to publicly acknowledge its efforts in this area, this is as close to a tacit admission" as is likely to be given, said Michael Ramsey, a self-driving car analyst with Gartner. "It will be interesting to see what form the test vehicles take and what can be gleaned about Apple's strategy.”
Apple's state vehicle testing permit covers three vehicles, all of them 2015 Lexus RX540h, and six drivers, the California DMV said. Business Insider, MarketWatch and VentureBeat were among the first news outlets to report the development.
Apple is the 30th company to be approved by the state for autonomous vehicle testing. As many as 12 million autonomous vehicles will be on the road worldwide by 2025, innovation that will create a $42 billion annual industry, according to The Boston Consulting Group.
Obtaining this permit officially puts Apple in the already-crowded competition for self-driving supremacy. "Being able to test self-driving cars in California is nothing new, as many companies have permits in the state. Applying for the permit also doesn’t necessarily mean Apple will start actively testing immediately, as some companies apply for the permits, but take a bit longer to actually start driving their autonomous vehicles on the roads,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
“Apple is notoriously secretive about its autonomous vehicles and ‘Project Titan’," he said. "So until we see something more concrete, its biggest concern may be how much competition there is in the space and how quickly that competition seems to be advancing their autonomous efforts.”
Apple did offer an inkling of its strategy in a December 2016 letter sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the Department of Transportation's Federal Automated Vehicles Policy and its desire to work with the agency on helping to define industry best practices. "The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation," wrote Steve Kenner, Apple's director of product integrity.
Kenner also said Apple supports various methods of crash simulations and cybersecurity and safety analysis. Companies should share "de-identified" data from crashes or near-misses to help improve self-driving technology, but must protect consumers' privacy in doing so, he said in the letter. "Data sharing should not come at the cost of privacy," said Kenner. "Apple believes that companies should invest the resources necessary to protect individuals’ fundamental right to privacy."