Apple's self-driving car plans emerge. But will Apple beat Google?

Apple's ultra-secretive approach to building a driverless car stands in stark contrast with Google's markedly transparent one. Which company will get there first?

Reed Saxon/AP/File
In this May 9, 2013 file photo, people walk near the Apple store in Santa Monica, Calif. Apple's mysterious plans to build a self-driving car were all but confirmed when the Guardian obtained a document in which an Apple official looks into booking space at a secure testing facility for automated vehicles.

Apple’s biggest secret may be out: Documents have come to light that strongly suggest the company is ready to test technology for a self-driving car.

“Project Titan,” as the operation is reportedly called, is all but confirmed. The Guardian obtained documentation of correspondence between Apple and GoMentum Station, a Silicon Valley naval-base-turned-autonomous-vehicle-testing-facility, in which Apple engineer Frank Fearon inquires about site usage.

“We would ... like to get an understanding of timing and availability for the space, and how we would need to coordinate around other parties who would be using [it],” Mr. Fearon said in the correspondence.

Apple and GoMentum have kept quiet since the Guardian’s publication of the information, but rumors of an Apple self-driving car have been floating around for some time. In May at the Code Conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, Calif., Apple senior vice president Jeff Williams called cars “the ultimate mobile device,” and said the company was "exploring a lot of different markets.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been meeting with car executives and hiring experts out from under companies like Mercedes Benz, the Guardian reported.

Until now, Google has held a lead in the race toward building a driverless car. Unlike Apple, though, Google has been transparent about its efforts, generating an image for itself as the trailblazer in the movement toward safer, easier transit.

Self-driving cars may still sound like the stuff of science fiction, but Russ Rader, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety senior VP of communications, told Investopedia in 2014 the technology has been creeping into car manufacturing models for several years now.

“The building blocks of driverless cars are on the road now,” he said, pointing out innovations like self-parking features and front-crash prevention systems that detect obstacles and apply the car’s brakes automatically as the precursors to completely autonomous cars.

Investopedia also reported that Google’s self-driving car software and systems will most likely be ready to market by 2017, with major car manufacturers following about three years behind. Mercedes Benz and Honda have both used GoMentum’s secure testing site to conduct trials on autonomous vehicle technology, the Guardian reported.

According to Google, its project launched in 2009, and since then more than 1 million miles have been self-driven during testing. While originally the company was just developing systems to use in existing cars, it has started building its own vehicles “from the ground up.”

Where Apple stands in the process is unclear. Just because its engineers are looking to test does not mean the hypothetical car is anywhere close to road-ready, the Verge’s Chris Ziegler noted.

“If Apple intends to make its car self-driving in some capacity ... it'll need to start testing systems and components years before it has an actual car ready,” he wrote.

“Meanwhile, there will be bureaucracies to fight on multiple fronts, both with autonomous driving systems and with getting a production car approved for domestic sale. Apple will need to worry about crash testing, for instance, which is a little more involved than your everyday FCC approval.”

So even if the project is further along than previously thought, it seems unlikely that Apple will cross the finish line before Google or car manufacturers.

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