Apple self-driving car plans emerge: how will it play with automakers?

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Liviu Tudoran's "Apple iMove" design study

Liviu Tudoran's "Apple iMove" design study

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Last year, techies, auto journalists, and Apple fans spent a great deal of time debating the existence, technology, and potential prospects of an "Apple car" project that the company never officially acknowledged.

The idea that Apple would move from fast-turn, high-volume, very profitable consumer electronics into long-cycle, insanely expensive carmaking never really made a lot of sense.

And in the fall, it appeared that the "Apple car" project had died.

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The secretive Silicon Valley company, however, hadn't stopped its research altogether—and now some further information has emerged on its ongoing investigations into self-driving car technology.

According to a report by the Reuters news service this past weekend, the company received a permit earlier this month from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on the state's roads.

It will now be required to report to the state on the progress of its self-driving car efforts, potentially opening its secretive "Project Titan" to more public scrutiny.

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype

Google Self-Driving Car Prototype

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The California DMV had released documents associated with Apple's application that were supposed to have the names of its "driver/operators" redacted.

They were not, however, and appear to include the names of former Tesla employees, NASA veterans, and robotics experts, according to a report by Business Insider.

The application documents filed with California include contingency plans for "operators" riding in the self-driving prototypes to assume control of the cars if needed.

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The cars to be operated on California roads are Lexus RX450h plug-in hybrid crossover utility vehicles.

They have been fitted, it appears, with additional Apple-developed software for self-driving, including the ability to "capture and store relevant data" from operations—including any events leading up to a collision.

Nothing in the documents gives a clue one way or the other as to whether Apple is contemplating building its own cars or creating software it could provide to existing automakers.

iOS 10.3 Apple CarPlay

iOS 10.3 Apple CarPlay

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Once the initial flush of excitement over the possibility of an "Apple car" abated, more rational minds pointed out that it takes decades to become a globally competitive automaker, not to mention tens of billions of dollars.

While Tesla is often cited as the model for new makers, the company has yet to turn a profit after 12 years (save for two marginally profitable quarters) and its future independence as an automaker remains open to question.

Apple certainly has cash to spend, but the highest and best uses of that hoard may not be in entering automaking.

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Instead, it more likely sees itself competing with Google to "own the dashboards" of future vehicles—with the now-ubiquitous Apple CarPlay and Android Auto just the first step.

Self-driving car programs are under development at virtually every major global auto company, including BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai-Kia, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen Group.

Silicon Valley companies in that same sphere include not only Apple and Google but also Uber and Lyft, part-owned by General Motors, which bought the Cruise Automation startup last year.

Tesla Model S Autopilot system

Tesla Model S Autopilot system

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Google's Waymo unit, meanwhile, has covered more than 2.5 million miles of testing on public roads.

Tesla, meanwhile, has aggregated operating data two orders of magnitude greater from the travels of its electric Model S and Model X.

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