No one knows for sure when or whether Apple would release its highly-anticipated car code-named Project Titan. But leaks and rumors have repeatedly shown that the company is making progress on the Apple car. A new report coming out of Switzerland claims the Cupertino company has hired “at least” ten post-doctoral students from the ETH Zurich.

Apple Car Concept Bosch
Image Credit: Automobile Italia/Flickr

Visual navigation, robotics experts in demand

According to Inside IT (via Apple Insider), the new hires would be operating out of Apple’s research facility in Switzerland, where it is reportedly working on the Apple car project. The Swiss publication added that most of the recruits specialized in visual navigation, robotics, and computer vision. Roland Siegwart, a professor of autonomous systems at ETH Zurich, told Inside IT that many of his students had left the institute to join multinational corporations, without naming Apple.

However, Professor Roland Siegwart was unaware of Apple’s R&D center in the country. Most of the times Apple officially announces the opening of an international R&D facility. But the company maintains secrecy when the research center is related to new product categories, says Apple Insider. In April last year, a German magazine revealed that Apple had set up a secret lab in Berlin to design and develop a self-driving car.

Bosch’s Reutlingen facility makes only auto parts

Meanwhile, Apple has released its 2017 Supplier Responsibility report. The report includes a total of 705 suppliers, up from 640 in 2015. The responsibility report highlights how its suppliers have worked towards improving energy efficiency, land diversion, and responsible sourcing of materials. Buried in the list of more than 700 suppliers is a Bosch manufacturing facility that makes only automobile-related parts.

It has sparked speculations that the iPhone maker might be actively sourcing components for the Apple car. The facility in question is owned by Robert Bosch GmbH, and is located at “Tuebinger Strasse 123 facility in Reutlingen, Germany.” Bosch makes a wide range of products, including the barometric sensor that Apple used in the iPhone 6S. However, Bosch employees told Apple Insider on condition of anonymity that the facility mentioned in Apple’s supplier report exclusively makes automotive and “mobility enhancement” products like gait trainers and wheelchairs.

The Reutlingen facility’s functional areas also include research and development. The Cupertino company is reportedly working on the Project Titan under a shell company named SixtyEight Research. Apple has purchased multiple real estate properties in and around Sunnyvale in California since last year, many of which have been linked to the Apple car project.

Where does the project stand at this point?

It is unclear how much progress Apple has made on its car project. Until early last year, rumors suggested that the company was developing a full-fledged car that would be ready for launch sometime around 2020. Apple had assembled an ambitious team of more than 1,000 engineers. But things didn’t proceed as expected, and Apple had to lay off hundreds of employees. Even project head Steve Zadesky left the company last year.

Since then, Apple has narrowed its focus, with Bob Mansfield leading the project. Instead of building the whole car, Mansfield and his team are now focused on developing the autonomous driving software and supporting hardware. They have been given until the end of 2017 to prove the viability of the project. Apple is reportedly testing the prototypes in a virtual reality environment to keep them away from competitors and the media.

Apple has acknowledged the existence of Project Titan

If Apple succeeds in developing the autonomous driving system, it can either partner with an existing automaker or design its own car. The Apple car is expected to be tightly integrated with the iOS devices. In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) late last year, Apple publicly acknowledged that it was working on a car project.

Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, said in a letter to the US regulators that the company was investing huge amounts of money in an automobile project. Kenner urged the NHTSA not to impose too many restrictions on self-driving vehicles as Apple was about the start testing the technology. The company was studying “machine learning and automation,” and it was “excited” about the potential of automation in transportation.

Kenner said in his letter that Apple was keen to work with the NHTSA to “help define the best practices for the industry.” The Apple executive demanded that new entrants such as Apple and established players like GM and Ford should be treated equally. Apple also proposed the idea of sharing “crashes and near-misses” data among automakers to enhance the technology and reduce the rate of accidents.

Will Apple car be too late to the market?

The iPhone maker has also registered multiple domain names such as Apple.car and Apple.auto. Though Apple owns thousands of domain names, the automobile-related names indicate that the company is at least interested in the industry.

As if these reports were not enough to prove the existence of the Apple car project, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called it an “open secret” last year. Musk also believes that the Apple car is a “missed opportunity.” There will be many autonomous electric cars on the road by the time Apple car arrives. At one point, there were speculations that Apple was planning to buy Tesla. The Apple car is said to compete directly against Tesla’s premium Model S and Model X vehicles.

Didi investment gave Apple access to traffic data

Last year, Apple surprised everyone by investing $1 billion in the Chinese ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing. Experts argue that Apple needs tons of traffic data to develop the autonomous driving system. The Didi investment would give the company access to traffic and driver behavior data in the world’s most populous country. When announcing the investment, Apple CEO Tim Cook said the decision was driven by “a number of strategic reasons.”

The Didi investment sparked speculations that Apple and Didi could partner on a self-driving car in the near future. Earlier this month, Didi announced it had set up a research lab in the backyard of Apple in California. The facility would focus on AI-based security for transportation and “intelligent-driving systems.” It is unclear whether Didi’s research lab is linked to the Apple car project. The Chinese company may have its own ambitions in the self-driving space, considering the technology could revolutionize the ride-hailing industry.

Consumers excited about the Apple car

The Cupertino company’s investment in Didi was an unusual move. Usually, Apple makes only low-profile acquisitions. Only time will tell how Apple is going to utilize the massive investment. But one thing is certain – Apple fans are more excited about the Apple car than any other product, even though it is years away or worse, may never hit the roads.

Last month, Baird analyst William Power conducted a survey to gauge consumer interest in the future Apple products. He asked 3,000 American consumers which product or service they would want from Apple in the next five years. About 21.6% of survey participants wanted an Apple car. It was followed by a Netflix-like streaming service (19.5%), a virtual reality headset (16.1%), an Apple Watch with more advanced health features (16%), and a smart home device similar to Amazon Echo (11.7%).