April 18, 2017
Apple received a permit from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles, a project thus far shrouded in secrecy. The company now joins Alphabet and Tesla on the public roads of California, the largest state by population. Moving off of private roads to public ones is the next step towards fine-tuning the AI systems that interact with the real world. The permit specifically covers three 2015 Lexus sport-utility vehicles and six operators who must sit behind the wheel, to take over driving if necessary.
The Wall Street Journal notes that Apple’s autonomous vehicle program, dubbed Project Titan, has been ongoing for years, with the first public statement in November in a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which said Apple’s investments targeted many purposes “including transportation,” and intimating that Apple was focused on software to control self-driving vehicles.
The New York Times reports that Apple now joins 29 other companies that have received test permits, in what it calls “among the most bitterly contested areas in emerging technology.” It also quotes from Apple’s letter to the NHTSA, that, “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 … in many areas, including transportation.”
Now that Apple’s vehicles will be on public roads, they will also be subject to more scrutiny. Alphabet’s Waymo, Uber Technologies and General Motors’ Cruise Automation have put logos on their test vehicles, although it’s unknown whether Apple plans to do the same. The state also “requires companies with autonomous-car testing permits to file public reports about their efforts, including crash information and the number of times their human operators have to take over from the computer.”
Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin adds that it’s hard to know what Apple’s “play” will be. “They do sense there’s an opportunity and they can bring value to it,” he said. “The question is: How big is this commitment? And how much money are they throwing at this commitment? It’s hard to know where this lands on their priority list.”
AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan notes that, “we’re still in the first mile of the marathon of this race.” “At this point,” he said, “it’s still up in the air who can take the lead.”