Apple Inc (AAPL) has secured a permit to test autonomous vehicles in California, the state Department of Motor Vehicles said on Friday.
“This does confirm what’s long been rumored: that Apple is at least toying with the idea of getting into the autonomous game in some capacity,” said Chris Theodore, president of consultancy Theodore & Associates, and a former executive at Ford Motor Co (F) and Chrysler.
The permit does not necessarily mean Apple is building a car. “This is not necessarily automobiles as initially rumored, but software or possibly hardware associated with autonomous technology,” Theodore said.
Apple joins a growing list of traditional carmakers, technology companies and startups to conduct trials in California, all vying to be the first to bring self-driving cars to the masses.
In another sign of the investment in self-driving cars, GM said this week it will add more than 1,100 jobs in California over five years at its Cruise Automation unit to boost its self-driving efforts. The country’s largest automaker by sales is testing more than 50 autonomous Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles on public roads in San Francisco, the Detroit metropolitan area and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Meanwhle, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler and supplier Robert Bosch, the world’s largest automotive supplier, are collaborating to develop“robo-taxis.”
Many companies have said the first self-driving cars will launch in 2020, but some experts believe it may take much longer due to regulatory challenges.
After a five-page letter last November from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company was under increased speculation that they would enter into the competitive self-driving space.
“The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation,” Kenner wrote.
Apple executives have been coy about their interest in cars. Chief Executive Tim Cook has suggested that Apple wants to move beyond integration of Apple smartphones into vehicle infotainment systems.
Apple’s permit in California applies to three vehicles -- all 2015 Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUVs -- and six individual drivers, according to The Assciated Press. Under California law, self-driving cars that are being tested must have a person in them who can take over if anything goes wrong.
Apple was not immediately available for comment.