Apple Officially Working on Self-Driving Cars

Apple Logo on the outside of an Apple Store's window
Apple WWDC 2016

Apple has been cleared to test self-driving cars in California, according the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

As first discovered by Business Insider, the DMV website now lists the company as a permit holder for the testing of autonomous vehicles. The DMV orders permit holders chronologically, with Apple being last on the list. It should be noted that this is only a permit for the Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program administered by the department’s Occupational Licensing Branch.

That’s what we know, and it’s potentially the tip of the iceberg. This doesn’t tell us if Apple has its own (self-built) vehicle for testing, as some have assumed (Project Titan), or if this is meant for testing software. This is also a good time to point out that nobody outside of the company knows what Project Titan really is. While some peg the Titan team at 1,000 or more, their work is still clandestine.

Several Apple vans with LIDAR mapping technology have been spotted around California, but Apple claims they are for Apple Maps. The company’s growing maps service lacks street views, and could use better turn-by-turn navigation, but that’s not what LIDAR is for. LIDAR doesn’t snap pictures of its surroundings; it creates a sort of digital map that’s used by autonomous cars.

Apple Maps and Developers

Apple’s Vice President of Environmental, Policy and Social Initiatives, Lisa Jackson, has a seat on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DoT) new Committee on Automation, and previously contributed to a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that noted her company is “excited” about automation:

Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal. 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.

Many assume this means an “Apple Car” is in the making, but the more likely scenario is that the company is working on a software platform that can be used by existing auto manufacturers. CarPlay is its in-car platform for iOS users, but does little more for drivers than proprietary software offerings from BMW, Honda and others.

Offloading the software stack may be enticing enough for car manufacturers, and adding autonomy would only increase its value. If Apple is able to network its self-driving cars, it could make the roads much safer, and provide another unique subscription service.

But whatever’s in the future, we’re still in the testing phase. It’s worth noting that most major car manufacturers are on the same DMV list, as are major tech companies. Apple would have to stand out from the crowd as a latecomer, so it’ll be interesting to see how it plans to do that. At this point, we’re past the “conceptual” stage for autonomy, and expecting a self-driving product from Cupertino no longer feels silly.