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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. The permit authorizes six people to take control of the vehicles if 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, Bob Mansfield, to reinvigorate the effort.
In October, Timothy D. 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 revolutionize the car experience.”
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.”
Apple declined to comment on the California permit or on its broader automotive plans, instead referring to a statement in December, when it submitted comments about autonomous vehicle technology to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
In those comments, the company said: “Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive and more personal. The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.”
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.