SAN FRANCISCO • Apple plans to start testing self-driving cars on California roads, the clearest signal yet that the world's most valuable technology company wants to design or build autonomous vehicle technology.
On Friday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles granted Apple an official test permit that the agency said would allow the company to test autonomous driving technology in three 2015 Lexus RX 450h luxury hybrid sport utility vehicles (SUVs). The permit authorises six drivers to take control of the vehicles when necessary.
Apple has been coy about its self-driving car project, known internally as Project Titan.
The iPhone maker has not officially acknowledged the existence of the project, which appeared to be adrift last year. The company laid off dozens of people in the fall and brought in one of its top troubleshooters, Mr Bob Mansfield, to reinvigorate the effort.
In October, Mr Timothy Cook, Apple's chief executive, told investors: "We are always looking at new things, and the car space in general is an area that it's clear that there are a lot of technologies that will either become available or will be able to revolutionise the car experience."
Mr Neil Cybart, an independent analyst who writes about Apple at the site Above Avalon, said the company appeared to have moved away from plans to build and sell cars in the way that Tesla does.
Instead, he said, "they are working on a transportation platform".
The self-driving car segment is among the most bitterly contested areas in emerging technology, with Apple joining 29 other companies that have received test permits in California alone.
The competition for talent in the sector is intense, with top employees receiving millions of dollars in compensation a year.
The ride-hailing company Uber is locked in nasty dispute with Google's former car division, now known as Waymo, over Waymo's accusations that a former company executive stole crucial technology that was later used by Uber.
Google, an early developer of the technology, considers self-driving cars to be a potential new market, while Uber hopes to eventually eliminate the need for human drivers to shuttle its customers. And traditional automakers like General Motors and Ford Motor view the self-driving car as a natural extension of their existing businesses.
"Every company will have to have some solution for transportation," Mr Cybart said.