Apple’s self-driving car? Don’t get your hopes up yet

Rumors have swirled for months asserting that Apple is designing a self-driving car, and maybe the company is, but a report Friday that the Cupertino giant scouted out a high-tech road testing site in the East Bay doesn’t show that the iPhone maker is working on autonomous driving.

The GoMentum Station at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station in central Contra Costa County is a testing ground not just for self-driving cars, but also Internet-connected vehicles and other advanced automotive technology.

Apple executives this spring were in talks with the government agency that manages the site, according to emails obtained by this newspaper from the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. The emails were originally obtained by the Guardian following a public records request. Other emails disclosed by the agency show interest by Google and Tesla in the site.

But none of the emails show that Apple wanted to use the site for self-driving cars.

“We do not have an agreement with Apple,” said Linsey Willis, spokeswoman for the transportation agency, in an interview Friday. “We just had a meeting with Apple, and they didn’t say what project they were interested in the site for.”

Autonomous driving is certainly a possibility, since that is one of the main draws of the gated-off Concord site. (Intriguingly, suburban Concord was also one of the first places where the public spotted Apple vans equipped with cameras and laser scanners). But the Concord station also advertises itself as a good place to test connected-vehicle applications such as Apple CarPlay, which turns the car dashboard into a mobile Web device and is already being integrated into some new cars this year.

The meeting happened at one of Apple’s offices in Sunnyvale, according to an email in late May from Apple’s Frank Fearon, who previously worked at San Francisco’s Lit Motors, a maker of futuristic electric scooters. Also cc’ed on the emails was Apple manager Philip Sieh, whose background is in more traditional Apple territory, such as touch-screens and fingerprint sensing.

“To set an agenda, we are hopping (sic) to see a presentation on the Concord testing grounds with a layout, photos, and a description of how the various areas of the grounds could be used,” Fearon wrote. “We would also 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 the space.”

Apple declined comment Friday.

While companies don’t need California’s permission to test at Concord’s sprawling and heavily guarded former military base, most companies that are well on their way toward exploring self-driving technology — such as Google and Tesla — have also sought permits to test on public streets.

Apple is not one of them, though neither is Honda — a company that has already publicized its self-driving project at the Concord site after signing an agreement with the agency in December. The agreement leaves room for other car and truck manufacturers to use the same site.

As of Friday, here are the companies with permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public streets:

Volkswagen (3 cars)
Mercedes Benz (5)
Google (48, including 25 of Google’s own two-seater prototype cars)
Delphi (2)
Tesla (12)
Bosch LLC (2)
Nissan (3)
Cruise Automation (2)
BMW (1)

Above: Modified versions of Acura’s flagship sedan, the RLX, are being used for automated drive testing and development at the GoMentum Station in Concord. Apple also expressed interest earlier this year in using the site for testing automotive technology, but didn’t reveal what kind. (Photo courtesy of Honda)


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  • WillieLee

    So Matt, why did they hire so many workers with experience in the production of vehicles? Does AirPlay now require an indepth understanding of how drivetrains are created? Just because Apple isn’t launching a semi-autonomous car next week doesn’t mean they aren’t working on one. The auto industry is one that brings in trillions of dollars in revenue annually with no dominant company. To think that Apple is not considering entering that industry is rather silly. Especially given the large increase in their research and development spending in the last few years.

  • Dax75

    Really? You need a high security area to test CarPlay? Lol. The people who write these articles must have a quota to meet.

  • WillieLee and Dax: Thanks for commenting! I also wouldn’t be too surprised if they are working on some kind of vehicle, autonomous or not. But before jumping to that conclusion, the person who writes these articles needs some kind of confirmation to back it up. The emails from Apple to the Contra Costa agency, which I’ve read, don’t confirm anything other than that Apple had an interest in the GoMentum site.