Documents confirm Apple is building self-driving car
Correspondence obtained by the Guardian shows Project Titan is further along than many suspected and company is scouting for test locations Rumors have surfaced of an Apple car in development Apple has been rumored to be working on a self-driving electric car, code-named Project Titan, but this is the first time its existence has been documented.
Apple is building a self-driving car in Silicon Valley, and is scouting for secure locations in the San Francisco Bay area to test it, the Guardian has learned. Documents show the oft-rumoured Apple car project appears to be further along than many suspected.
In May, engineers from Apple’s secretive Special Project group met with officials from GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre former naval base near San Francisco that is being turned into a high-security testing ground for autonomous vehicles.
In correspondence obtained by the Guardian under a public records act request, Apple engineer Frank Fearon wrote: “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].”
Apple declined to comment
GoMentum Station is on the old Concord naval weapons station, a disused second world war-era facility with 20 miles of paved highways and city streets. The base is closed to the public and guarded by the military, making it, officials claim, “the largest secure test facility in the world” for the “testing validation and commercialization of connected vehicle (CV) applications and autonomous vehicles (AV) technologies to define the next generation of transportation network infrastructure.” Mercedes-Benz and Honda have already carried out experiments with self-driving cars behind its barbed-wire fences.
This security is bound to appeal to Apple, which has hundreds of engineers quietly working on automotive technologies in an anonymous office building in Sunnyvale, four miles from its main campus in Cupertino. Details of the project are still unknown but it seems that Apple has a self-driving car almost ready for the road. In late May, Jack Hall, program manager for autonomous vehicles at GoMentum Station, wrote to Fearon to postpone a tour of the facility but noted: “We would still like to meet in order to keep everything moving and to meet your testing schedule.”
Apple has been rumoured to be working on a self-driving electric car, codenamed Project Titan, but this is the first time its existence has been documented. In May, Apple senior vice-president Jeff Williams called the car “the ultimate mobile device” and said that Apple was “exploring a lot of different markets … [in which] we think we can make a huge amount of difference”.
The move comes as Google, Uber and other tech companies are pouring cash into robot cars. Apple chief executive Tim Cook has held a series of meetings with car executives in recent months and the company has poached automotive experts from established players, including the head of Mercedes Benz’s Silicon Valley research arm.
Cook has met with Fiat-Chrysler boss Sergio Marchionne and may have toured BMW’s i3 electric car assembly line in Germany last year. The company has also been recruiting automotive experts from Silicon Valley and beyond, hiring engineers from Tesla Motors and Mercedes-Benz, as well as power experts from electric car battery maker A123 Systems. Fearon previously worked on an innovative electric motorbike at Silicon Valley start-up Lit Motors, and helped to build an autonomous robotic paraglider while studying at Georgia Institute of Technology. Apple declined to comment but the move comes as CEO Tim Cook has held a series of meetings with car executives in recent months.
When Fearon approached GoMentum Station, he wrote: “We are hoping to see a presentation on the … testing grounds with a layout, photos, and a description of how the various areas of the grounds could be used.” GoMentum Station’s empty roads feature everything from highway overpasses and railway crossings to tunnels and cattle grids. These would enable Apple to test vehicles in a variety of realistic everyday situations but without exposing it to scrutiny.
Google, Tesla, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and several other carmakers have been issued permits by the California department of motor vehicles to test self-driving cars on the state’s public roads. But that process requires disclosing technical and commercial details, something that the notoriously secretive Apple might not want.
“We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Apple,” says Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, owner of GoMentum Station. “We can’t tell you anything other than they’ve come in and they’re interested.”
Apple’s obsession with secrecy even extends internally. While one of the engineers corresponding with GoMentum Station admits to belonging to Apple’s Special Projects group, Fearon signs his emails with a cryptic question mark icon. However, documents seen by the Guardian reveal that Apple’s automotive team is housed in a low-profile building several miles from the company’s glamorous new Cupertino campus, which is currently under construction.
The Sunnyvale building was leased in 2014, and was subsequently modified by Apple to include several lab and workshop spaces, as well as beefed-up security and access card readers, city permits show. “GoMentum Station is 40 miles north of Silicon Valley,” says Iwasaki. “And there’s not a lot of vacant space in the Valley if you want to do testing in a secure location. We’re close enough that companies can bring their vehicles north, store them in the Concord area and bring their software and hardware engineers up.”
Google and other car makers have visited GoMentum Station with a view to trialling driverless cars there, although so far only Honda has signed a $250,000 memorandum of understanding with the facility to begin testing. The Japanese automaker plans to use self-driving versions of its RLX saloon to accelerate the development of automated and connected vehicle technologies far from prying eyes.
However, when engineers from Tesla Motors tried to tour GoMentum Station in April, armed soldiers at the base refused entry to foreign-born workers and a manager who would not divulge his social security number. “At this point, I’ll retract our interest in this test site until the process is worked out,” he huffed in an email to GoMentum Station’s Jack Hall. Such high security might not suit all carmakers, but Apple should feel right at home.
Elon Musk says Tesla execs met with Apple; talks driverless car
Tesla Motors Co. Founder and CEO Elon Musk confirmed that executives from his company had met with officials from Apple Inc., but wouldn’t tell his interviewer, Bloomberg’s Betty Liu, whether talks involved a possible acquisition by Apple.
Musk spoke with Liu shortly after Tesla released its earnings report Wednesday afternoon, following the U.S. market close. Tesla’s stock jumped earlier this week when reports of the meetings were first out.
Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that meetings between Musk and Apple’s acquisition chief Adrian Perica occurred in the Spring, sending shares higher ahead of the company’s earnings report.
“I can’t comment on whether those [meetings] revolved around any kind of acquisition,” Musk added.
During the interview with Bloomberg, Musk touched on a range of topics, most notably the company’s promising efforts to create a fully driverless car.
“…At this point, we’ve probably got the strongest autonomous driving engineering team of any car company, or maybe any company, and we can expect to be the first company in that market,” Musk said.
He added that Tesla had briefly considered using Android as an operating system in its vehicles years ago, but eventually decided against it.
Tesla shares rallied 10% Thursday, making a new high over $215 a share.