The Department of Motor Vehicles in California has officially confirmed that Apple is exploring the self-driving car technology. On Friday, the Cupertino company secured the DMV’s permit to test the Apple car autonomous driving system on public roads in California. Apple is not the only company to have such permits in the state. California has granted permits to as many as 29 other companies to test self-driving cars.

Apple Car Concept Bosch
Image Credit: Automobile Italia/Flickr

Apple car system testing to begin soon

The iPhone maker will be competing against Tesla, Google’s Waymo, Ford, and many others hoping to reshape transportation. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Apple’s test vehicles will have a person behind the wheel to monitor the testing. The DMV’s March 30 notice did not include Apple in the list of companies having gained approval. It means the Cupertino company received permits in the last couple of weeks or so.

The tests will be conducted using existing vehicles. Apple will be using three vehicles with six drivers, according to DMV. All the three vehicles are 2015 Lexus RX450h. A source familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that the tests would commence soon. The companies permitted to test autonomous vehicles on public roads are required to submit annual reports “summarizing the disengagements” of the autonomous driving technology.

Also, the permit requires a company to disclose all the traffic incidents within ten business days of it taking place. Though Apple has never publicly acknowledged the existence of Project Titan, the DMV’s permit is the strongest evidence yet that the iPhone maker is developing the autonomous driving technology. Chris Theodore of Theodore & Associates told Reuters that the permit confirms Apple is working to get into the “autonomous game in some capacity.”

The permit does not guarantee that Apple would someday launch a self-driving car. But it does indicate that the company is developing the underlying software or hardware related to autonomous driving technology. The self-driving cars are expected to transform mobility in the coming years. According to Boston Consulting Group, at least 25% of the total miles driven in the US in 2030 would be traveled in self-driving electric cars.

Apple wants to help NHTSA define best practices

Apple CEO Tim Cook has indicated in the past that the company was keen to move beyond the integration of iPhones with in-car infotainment systems. In a letter sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in November last year, Apple’s director of product integrity Steve Kenner acknowledged the company’s interest in self-driving technology.

Kenner said in his letter that the iPhone maker was “investing heavily” in the study of automation and machine learning, and it was excited about the potential of automated systems in a variety of areas including transportation. He requested the regulators that established players and new entrants be treated equally. Kenner added that the Cupertino company was keen to work with the regulators to “help define the best practices” for the autonomous driving industry.

Apple sourcing auto components from Bosch

Last month, Swiss publication Inside IT claimed that Apple had hired more than ten post-doctoral students from ETH Zurich to work at its research facility in Switzerland. Most of the new hires specialized in computer vision, robotics, and visual navigation. Their specializations suggest that they would be working on the Apple car project. Besides Switzerland, Apple has also set up a secret research facility in Berlin to attract German talent and work on the self-driving car.

Apple’s latest Supplier Responsibility Report indicated that it was sourcing automobile-related components from a major German company. The report included 705 suppliers, including a Bosch manufacturing facility that only makes automobile components. The facility is located at “Tuebinger Strasse 123 facility in Reutlingen, Germany.” Of course, you may argue that Bosch is a large company that makes hundreds of products. But a Bosch employee told Apple Insider that the manufacturing plant mentioned in Apple’s report makes only automotive and “mobility enhancement” products.

Rumors about the so-called Apple car have been circulating for more than two years. The full-fledged car was rumored to hit the roads by 2020. Apple had leased real estate properties in California to develop and test the self-driving vehicle. Last year, Apple hired the former CEO of QNX, Dan Dodge, to develop the software for Project Titan.

Prove the viability of the project by year-end

Apple has also formed a shell company called SixtyEight Research to maintain secrecy around the Apple car, and source components from suppliers without leaking the details. However, after the departure of key employees working on the project, Apple appointed Bob Mansfield as the new project chief last year. Mansfield narrowed down the focus from building a full-fledged car to developing the autonomous driving system first.

According to reports, Mansfield and his team have until December 2017 to prove the viability of the Project Titan. If Apple succeeds in developing the self-driving car system, it may choose to build its own full-fledged car or join hands with an established automaker. Recent rumors indicate that Apple had opted to test the prototypes in virtual reality to keep them away from the prying eyes of the media and competitors.

People want Apple car

Since last year, Apple has registered several automobile-related domain names such as Apple.auto and Apple.car, which indicates that the company is at least exploring the industry. It has also invested $1 billion in Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.