Apple appears to be building a driverless car and is looking for a secure location to conduct tests, according to documents obtained by the Guardian, indicating that the rumoured ‘iCar' may be further down the development road than first thought.
The Guardian received correspondence from a Public Records Act request in which Apple engineer Frank Fearnon 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]."
This suggests that Apple is following Google and its more public driverless car project, and looking at the potential to partner with other companies, likely to be car manufacturers, to bring the car to the road.
The documents indicate that Apple is looking for secure locations in the San Francisco Bay area to test autonomous vehicle technology, and a disused World War II-era facility is being suggested as a potential location.
GoMentum Station is protected by the military and offers 20 miles of paved roads and streets, and has been used by Mercedes and Honda for testing driverless car technology. Such a location would suit Apple's famous love of secrecy when developing new products.
Farnon was said to have approached GoMentum Station and requested more detailed information on the site. "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," he is quoted as saying.
Randy Iwasaki, owner of GoMentum Station, has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Apple, according to the Guardian, and was not at liberty to share any details of any discussions with the technology firm. "We can't tell you anything other than they've come in and they're interested," he said.
Speculation around Apple's entry into the car technology market has been rife over the past couple of years.
Apple has CarPlay, an in-car information and entertainment operating system, but has not revealed any information about building cars, driverless or otherwise.
However, chief executive Tim Cook is said to have visited some of the world's major car manufacturers, and Apple is snapping up experts from Mercedes, Tesla and electric battery manufacturer A123 Systems, so it seems that Apple has its sights set on developing a driverless electric car.
AppleInsider said in March that Apple is working on an electric car project dubbed Protect Titan at a secret facility near the company's headquarters in California.
It is not known whether the rumours and piecemeal evidence of Apple's car projects have any solid foundations outside the company's tentative exploration of new markets. But if Apple entered the driverless cars market it would face Google and several other manufacturers building their own autonomous vehicles.
Author's view: Developing cars is not an easy process. The design, tooling, manufacturing and testing costs manufacturers enormous sums and requires huge amounts of experience and resources, hence the lack of automotive startups.
However, Apple's vast coffers mean it could simply acquire the expertise and facilities to build a car which, when combined with the company's technology and app ecosystem, could one day see an Apple-branded driverless car stuffed full of apps and powered as much by data as electricity or hybrid motors.
Apple could even consider buying a car manufacturer, although such a move is unlikely and a significant risk of capital.
Given that Apple does not manufacturer its own phones or tablets, and subcontracts out to the likes of Foxconn, it is more likely that Apple will work on the design and technology and leave the engineering and manufacturing to a partner.
But until more documents appear or Apple reveals its plans, speculation will remain just that around its driverless car ambitions.
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