Apple expands autonomous car fleet as major Chinese player comes to town

If all goes according to plan, folks could be in Apple cars in 2019

Apple has signaled a deepening interest in autonomous-car technology with the expansion of its fleet of self-driving vehicles in northern California — a move that gives it the second-largest fleet in the state. The news comes as Chinese ridesharing giant Didi Chuxing prepares to begin tests of its own driverless-car technology, also in California.

Apple is now testing a total of 55 cars on public roads — up from 45 in March and 27 in January — according to information sent to macReports by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Only General Motors’ Cruise has more autonomous vehicles — 104 in all — operating in the state, while Waymo has 51 registered vehicles.

But these numbers pale in comparison to Waymo’s Arizona operation, which currently has 600 autonomous minivans tootling about the streets of Phoenix. And the Alphabet-owned company has “thousands” more on order ahead of a ridesharing service it plans to launch.

From three to 55

Apple’s self-driving project kicked off with just three vehicles in April 2017 before expanding to 45 in the spring of this year, with another 10 having just joined the fleet. In addition, Apple now has a total of 83 drivers licensed to take its cars out onto California’s roads. All of its cars require a safety driver behind the wheel, as the company has yet to apply for a permit allowing for unmanned drives following recent regulation changes by the DMV. As it stands, Apple has not yet received permission to test truly driver-free autonomous cars, though Waymo recently applied for such a permit.

That said, if everything continues to go according to plan, you could be sitting in an Apple car as early as next year.

Apple has been using Lexus RX450h SUVs to test its technology. As with similar vehicles, Apple’s high-tech motor uses advanced LIDAR equipment as well as other sensors and cameras to ensure a safe drive.

While the consensus appears to be that the tech giant is looking to license the technology that powers self-driving cars rather than build one itself, its decision to increase the size of its fleet nevertheless indicates a determination among Apple executives to take on the competition in the fast-developing self-driving space.

And that competition now includes China’s biggest ridesharing provider, Didi Chuxing. Like Uber and Lyft, Didi is also developing autonomous-car technology, and has just received a permit to begin testing its vehicles in California.

It joins more than 50 companies in the state that currently have permission to test their technology on the roads of California.

Updated on May 16: Added prospective date for Apple car’s launch.

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