Apple Aims to Test Self-Driving Cars at Military Base

Documents show the Silicon Valley giant hopes to test its own self-driving cars at a naval weapons station

Illustration: iStockphoto
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Rumors of a secret Apple self-driving car were apparently not exaggerated. Documents obtained by The Guardian show that the tech giant’s engineers have been searching for a place to test self-driving car technology out of public sight.

In May, Apple’s secretive Special Projects group sent engineers to investigate the possibility of holding self-driving car tests at GoMentum Station, a 2,100-acre former naval weapons station located near San Francisco, according to The Guardian. Mark Harris, a contributor to The Guardian and IEEE Spectrum, obtained the related correspondence between officials and Apple engineers through a public records act request.

The GoMentum Station is located at the site of the former Concord naval weapons station that stored munitions and other military supplies during World War II. The local Contra Costa Transportation Authority has since been promoting the site as “the largest secure test facility in the world” with 20 miles of paved roadway for testing self-driving cars.

Automakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Honda have already carried out self-driving car tests at GoMentum Station. The facility remains guarded by the U.S. military and maintains a level of secrecy that might appeal to Apple, Harris noted in The Guardian. Others companies such as Google have been testing self-driving cars on California’s public roads had to submit certain technical details for approval by state officials.

The Guardian story also cites documents showing how Apple leased an anonymous Sunnyvale building in 2014 to house its automotive team of engineers about four miles away from its main Cupertino campus. 

Whispers about Apple’s automotive ambitions have swirled around the Silicon Valley giant since Mickey Drexler, J. Crew CEO and an Apple board member, spoke about Apple founder Steve Jobs having the dream of designing an “iCar” before he died.

In February, Apple hired engineers with expertise in battery and electric car technology, spurring rumors about a “Project Titan” aimed at creating a self-driving, electric minivan. Around the same time, Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler and Mercedes Benz, laughed about rumors of Apple trying to get into the automotive business.

To be fair to Zetsche, Apple’s self-driving car ambitions remain unclear even with the latest revelations appearing to confirm the existence of an internal development effort. The tech giant may simply want to better understand the new direction in car technology as it targets automakers with future products that could fit the robot car future.

Apple’s efforts mark yet another example of a tech giant that has jumped into the self-driving car race in recent years. In March, Chinese search giant Baidu announced it was also developing self-driving car technology. That means the field may look increasingly crowded for Google, despite the latter having gotten a jump on its rivals.

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