Apple Scouting a Self-Driving Car Testing Area - Above Avalon Premium Week in Review

Along with periodic Above Avalon posts, I send out a daily email about Apple to members (10-12 stories per week). The following story was sent to members on August 17th. 

Apple Scouting a Self-Driving Car Testing Area

In an article with quite the intriguing title of "Documents confirm Apple is building self-driving car," the Guardian became the latest publication to add their take to the ever-growing Apple Car debate.  

Here's the Guardian:

"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-rumored 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."  

The Guardian published certain parts of correspondence between Apple and GoMentum Station, obtained under a public records act request. The language would seem to show that Apple was interested in doing something at the testing location.

Frank Fearon, an Apple engineer wrote: "We are hoping to see a presentation on the...testing grounds with a layout, photos, and description of how the various areas of the grounds could be used." Additional correspondence from Apple included: "We 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]." Meanwhile, Jack Hall, a program manager at GoMentum Station responded saying a tour of the facility needed to be postponed along with saying: "We would still like to meet in order to keep everything moving and to meet your testing schedule." In reference to Apple showing interest in the site, Hall told the AP, "We don't know. [Apple hasn't] said what they want to test. It could be an iPhone." 

In a rather comical confirmation that Apple did in fact reach out to GoMentum, an executive director at the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, owner of GoMentum Station, told the Guardian: "we had to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Apple...We can't tell you anything other than they've come in and they're interested." So much for that non-disclosure agreement.

The first thing that stood out to me about this report is that it was indeed a great find by the Guardian. It would seem that the GoMentum Station project was thrown back in the public spotlight a few weeks ago when the town of Concord and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority reached an agreement for how the space will be governed. GoMentum Station won't just be a testing site for self-driving cars, but also vehicles with self-driving technology and "smart" traffic signals and other technologies. Up to five automakers and 15 other companies may use the base with Honda and Mercedes-Benz having already agreed to test autonomous vehicles there.

Before then, the only confirmation that this site was going to be used to test self-driving cars seemed to come from a press release from this past October saying Mercedes signed up as a test partner. Considering that Apple communicated with GoMentum Station officials from this location only a few months ago, it's likely that the Guardian may have been the first outlet to find this scoop, or certainly unveil the details of correspondence between Apple and GoMentum.

The other aspect of the article relates to the seemingly definite title and byline in which the Guardian said: "Correspondence obtained by the Guardian shows Project Titan is further along than many suspected and company is scouting for test locations." There was nothing found in the correspondence published in the article that showed Apple was looking to test an actual Apple-branded self-driving car. Instead, we have information indicating Apple showed interest in using the testing area.

Instead of Apple looking to test a complete self-driving car in the near-term, it is much more likely that Apple is interested in using GoMentum Station to further advance its self-driving technologies. Think more along the lines of the cameras, sensors, and software that would make up the navigational brain of the car rather than a full car with carbon fiber and battery. Being able to test a self-driving rig in a real-world scenario with weathered roads, railroad track crossings, and tunnels would be an essential stage for Apple to take before getting to the point of testing the "Apple Car." 

With nearly all evidence pointing to Apple giving the Apple Car project the green light approximately a year ago, I'm skeptical that Apple has a fully functional prototype ready to hit the road. The timing for something like that so soon after a team had been assembled (and is still being put together judging by recent hires) just doesn't sound right.

Apple is unable to test its self-driving technology on public roads in California without going through the permitting process which would serve as confirmation that Apple was indeed testing self-driving car technology. While Apple wouldn't need to disclose much information as part of the permitting process in California, aside from any information related to accidents, the mere confirmation that the company was looking to test self-driving car technology wouldn't exactly fit with Apple's model of placing an incredible amount of value in secrecy and surprise. If public roads are out of the question, that would mean that the only other option is GoMentum Station, another privately owned plot of land, or an Apple-owned location. There are plans to have other fake towns built around the U.S. to test self-driving cars, 
like Mcity, which is a 32-acre fake town in Michigan that opened last month. Ford, GM, Delphi and Toyota have all shown interest in using Mcity for testing. Considering GoMentum Station's proximity to Apple's resources and staff, this particular location in Concord would seem to be too good to be true.

Recall the WSJ article from this past February which explicitly made the claim that Apple's Titan project did not include a self-driving car. I think that was a head-fake, purposely passed down the grapevine to throw off competitors. There is increasing evidence that self-driving capabilities may in fact be positioned as an eventual selling point for an Apple-branded car. Self-driving technology, or even just the beginning stages of it, would go a long way in positioning such things as safety and convenience as attractive value propositions to consumers.

If you're Apple, a 2,100-acre former naval base lined with barbed wire would certainly seem to be a testing site worth checking out. 

Along with the preceding story, the full list of stories sent to Above Avalon members last week included: 

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