The much-rumored Apple car may not be a full-fledged vehicle. Apple is currently focused entirely on developing the autonomous driving platform. Last week, the Department of Motor Vehicles in California granted Apple the permission to test its automated driving system using existing vehicles on public roads. Now Business Insider has obtained documents that reveal details about Apple’s autonomous car training program. The Cupertino company already has a training program underway.

Apple Car Concept Bosch
Image Credit: Automobile Italia/Flickr

It’s a ‘development platform,’ not a full-fledged Apple car

The documents related to the “Development Platform Related Training” reveal that the company has developed a suite of software and hardware systems to allow a car to drive on public roads while avoiding pedestrians and other vehicles. Apple already owns patents for a collision avoidance system. The training materials reference to a “Development Platform” and an “Apple Automated System.”

Apple has used the wording “development platform” instead of “vehicle” or “car” throughout the document. It indicates that the company intends to build only the autonomous driving system rather than a full-fledged car. Its self-driving platform could be integrated into other manufacturers’ vehicles. It’s also quite possible that Apple would build a full-fledged car after it has developed the self-driving system.

The California DMV requires a human driver to be present behind the wheel to monitor the testing. The driver must be trained to be able to take control of the wheel at any moment. According to the DMV, the iPhone maker will be testing its autonomous driving system using three 2015 Lexus RX450h SUVs and six human drivers. Apple is training employees, most of them PhDs in machine learning, to use the different systems it is testing.

What the human drivers will be doing

The documents reveal that the drivers will have to pass as many as seven tests during the training before they can handle the Apple Automated System. The training manual includes topics such as assuming control of the vehicle at tight U-turns, lane changes, high-speed driving, sudden brakes, and more. Explaining one of the tests, the document says the driver has to ensure that the vehicle stays within the course at tight U-turns while maintaining a speed of 15mph.

An Apple employee wrote in the training documents that the development platform was capable of “sending electronic commands for steering, accelerating, and decelerating.” It can also handle “portions” of the dynamic driving task. The development platform could be controlled electronically. The platform uses a Logitech steering and pedals to actuate drive-by-wire.

The six drivers mentioned in the documents are engineers already working on the Apple car project. They include former employees of Tesla and Bosch.

Testing it at both high and low speeds

The tech giant told the Department of Motor Vehicles that the system will be capable of capturing and storing relevant data right “before a collision occurs.” The data will be used to make cars safer. The DMV requires companies testing autonomous driving vehicles to disclose every traffic incident within ten business days of it happening.

Training documents don’t reveal the technical details or how the platform works. The training program involves both the low-speed (30mph) and high-speed (65mph) driving. It indicates that Apple’s autonomous driving system is designed for urban use as well as highways. All the three Lexus cars intended for public testing are relatively new. One of them was registered to Apple in November last year, and the other two were registered only a month ago. None of the vehicles has clocked more than 700 miles on their odometer.

According to Mark Harris of IEEE Spectrum, all three vehicles are registered to Apple at an Illinois address. Harris points out that the same address is the headquarters of Donlen, a subsidiary of Hertz.

Apple car: An open secret

The Apple car has been an open secret for almost three years. The Cupertino company was previously rumored to be working on a full-fledged autonomous vehicle. After some leadership issues and key departures, Apple appointed Bob Mansfield as the head of the Apple car project. Mansfield has narrowed down the focus from building a full-fledged car to developing the autonomous driving system.

Tim Cook has given Mansfield and his team until the end of 2017 to prove the feasibility of the project. We will get to learn more about the project once Apple starts testing the vehicles on public roads in California. The iPhone maker will have to share data with the DMV under California law. Apple has been keen to expand its presence in the automobile industry beyond CarPlay.

Apple is not the only company to have been granted permission to test autonomous vehicles in California. There are 29 other companies including Google’s Waymo, Ford, Tesla, and General Motors either planning to test or already testing their self-driving vehicles on public roads in the state. In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) late last year, Apple acknowledged that it was “investing heavily” in automated driving systems and machine learning.