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Apple Takes a Bite Out of the Self-Driving Game

By: Bridget Clerkin April 19, 2017
Vehicles powered by Apple's self-driving technology are hitting the streets in California less than a year after the company's automated-vehicle division was reported to be in disarray.

With a simple announcement, everything changed.

Proving once again that its influence should never be discounted, Apple has officially stepped into the driverless car game, receiving permission from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to test several autonomous cars on the state’s roads.

Specifically, the permit allows Apple to experiment with three 2015 Lexus RX 450h hybrid vehicles and a team of six approved drivers.

Apple isn't focusing on manufacturing the vehicles themselves, but rather on the software that could help them navigate the streets.

That the world’s most valuable technology company would have interest in the world of autonomous autos is not exactly a shock, but the timing of the move may seem strange for those tracking the developing self-driving industry.

Just last year, Apple was thought to be shuttering its driverless car division—reportedly referred to as “Project Titan”—or at least heavily reorganizing its plans. Last September, the company allegedly laid off dozens of employees who were supposedly tied to the endeavor, although it never confirmed nor denied the widespread reports.

Nor has it ever commented on the existence of Project Titan itself. The tech giant has been notoriously unforthcoming about any intentions to get involved in the self-driving business, with the California permit by far the most public signal that it has eyes on entering the industry.

What’s undeniable, however, is the fact that it will find much competition in the space.

The long list of companies participating in the hypercompetitive realm of autonomous vehicles reads as a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley and the world’s top car manufacturers. One of Apple’s biggest corporate rivals, Google, has long been deeply involved in the technology, while ride-hailing powerhouse Uber has also telegraphed its ambitions to lead the industry, among a spate of others.

To deal with such a crowded field (29 other companies in California have permission to test self-driving cars), Apple may be taking a slightly different tack: Not focusing on manufacturing the vehicles themselves, but rather on the software that could help them navigate the streets.

Bolstering this theory among Apple watchers is the fact that the iPhone producer recently hired the former head of BlackBerry’s automotive software division, Dan Dodge. While his specific role at the company remains unclear, Dodge will reportedly work for longtime Apple fixer Bob Mansfield, who was put in charge of the company’s vehicle initiative last year in the wake of the firing spree and alleged restructuring of the department, according to various reports.

Apple has remained characteristically mum on the situation, referring the press only to a statement it made last year where it praised the possibilities of “machine learning and automation” and the potential for such technology “in many areas, including transportation.”

Still, with entirely driverless models in the works and the morphing of our vehicles into mobile entertainment units all but inevitable, one can’t help but wonder if “iPod” will soon be a term better suited for an Apple car.

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