One of the tech world’s most open secrets finally has some confirmation: Apple filed for and received approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving car tech on public roads. The Apple Car, in some shape or form, is real, at least as a research project.
The DMV filing showed up on the department’s website on Friday. Apple will apparently test a software and sensor sensor system installed in three test vehicles–all 2015 Lexus SUVs. The permit covers six people who will be required to sit inside the test vehicles during the testing.
The storm of speculation that arose with the first rumors of Apple’s “Project Titan” has over the past year centered on whether Apple is in fact building a full car, or, as some reports have suggested, merely building the software that controls the sensors and self-driving functions in the car.
“Even if they have a permit to test, it is most likely related to iOS, navigation, cameras, and sensors used in some type of autonomous vehicle,” says Creative Strategies president Tim Bajarin. “Apple could bring innovation to either cars being retrofitted with the self-driving technology, or to new ones designed from scratch.”
The original vision of building a whole “Apple Car” may have been diluted by the realities of actually engineering the hardware, which arguably falls well outside Apple’s design expertise in consumer technology.
Building a self-driving car from the ground up is also very expensive, and marketing such a product would also be new to Apple, Bajarin adds.
Above Avalon analyst Neil Cybart believes Apple is still interested in building the whole vehicle. He points out, rightly, that Apple’s first instinct is to try to design and control as much of the customer experience as possible.
“Value will flow to the companies providing the full experience produced by controlling both auto hardware and software,” he wrote in an email to Fast Company.
It’s true that in successful Apple products like the iPhone it’s been the design interplay between hardware and software that creates the positive experience.
Cybart suspects that Apple wants to perfect the software, then move to the task of building the vehicle that surrounds it. “Apple is currently focused on developing the core technologies needed to power a self-driving car,” he says. “My suspicion is that once Apple is confident in its progress, the company will once again focus on auto hardware.”
So software only or the full monty? The news of Apple’s DMV permit ultimately doesn’t do much to settle the argument.
“It would lend credibility to the idea that Apple is creating a complete self-driving ‘system,’ but doesn’t assure that this would be a car,” says analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy. “It could ultimately be productized as a subsystem that could go into another car brand.”
Moorhead, too, believes the software development might just be part of staged approach that will progress toward building the hardware part of the car.
Disagreement among Apple watchers might just be a reflection of disagreement within Apple. The company is said to have hundreds of people working on “Project Titan,” but progress on the project has reportedly been slowed by multiple departures of key people and debate over the best way forward for the nascent technology.
A Bloomberg report last year suggested that with the arrival of Project Titan’s new leader, Apple veteran Bob Mansfield, the company began to refocus resources on the software side of the project.