The iPhone of cars? Apple enters self-driving car race Monday, April 17, 2017 The Apple logo is shown above a store location entrance in Dallas. Apple will begin testing self-driving car technology. The California Department of Motor Vehicles awarded Apple a permit to test autonomous vehicles Friday and disclosed that information on its website.
SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is joining the competitive race to design self-driving cars, raising the possibility a company that already has reshaped culture with its iPhone may try to transform transportation, too.
Ending years of speculation, Apple's late entry into a crowded field was made official Friday with the disclosure the California Department of Motor Vehicles had awarded a permit for the company to begin testing its self-driving car technology on public roads in the state.
The permit covers three vehicles — all 2015 Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUVs — and six individual drivers.
California law requires people to be in a self-driving car so they can take control if something goes wrong.
Apple goes mobile … in a new way
Apple confirmed its arrival in the self-driving car market but wouldn't discuss its intentions. Its interest in autonomous vehicle technology, however, long has been clear.
The Cupertino, California, company pointed to a statement it issued in December.
"Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems," the company said then. "There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation."
Apple released that statement after Steve Kenner, a former Ford Motor executive who is Apple's director of product integrity, notified federal regulators of the company's interest in self-driving cars in a letter.
Like others, Apple believes self-driving cars could ease congestion and save millions of people who die annually in traffic accidents often caused by drunk or distracted motorists.
Self-driving cars also could be a lucrative new market. And Apple has been searching for its next act for a while, one that will take it beyond its mainstay phones, tablets and personal computers.
A next big thing
Although iPhone's ongoing popularity has helped Apple remain the world's most valuable company, the company hasn't had a breakthrough product since the 2010 debut of the iPad, in the throes of a three-year sales slump.
The dry spell has raised doubts as to whether Apple lost some of its trend-setting magic with the death of co-founder Steve Jobs in 2011.
Apple will be vying against 29 other companies that have California permits to test self-driving cars. The list includes major automakers Ford, General Motors, BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla, as well as one of Apple's biggest rivals in technology, Google, whose testing of self-driving cars has been spun off into an affiliate called Waymo.
Since Google began its work on self-driving vehicles eight years ago, Waymo's fleet of self-driving cars has logged more than 2 million miles on the road.
That means Apple has a long way to catch up in self-driving technology. But it often has been a follower in markets that it eventually revolutionized. It wasn't the first to introduce a digital music player, smartphone, or tablet before its iPod, iPhone and iPad came out.
With $246 billion in cash, Apple also easily could afford to buy technology that accelerates its development of self-driving cars.
There has been recurring speculation Apple might acquire Tesla, which has a market value of about $50 billion.
Neither Apple nor Tesla has given any inkling they're interested in joining forces, though.
Speculation about Apple's interest in expanding into automobiles began swirling in 2015 amid media reports the company had begun secretly working on building its own electric car under the name project "Titan."
Apple never confirmed the existence of Titan, which now is believed to be dead.
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