(TNS) -- Whatever Apple has in mind -- be it a dreamy electric-powered, robot iCar, as some fans hope, or just some fancy dashboard software -- the evidence is mounting that the secretive Cupertino tech giant is getting serious about self-driving cars.
"You guys aren't big on secrets," comedian Stephen Colbert joked Tuesday as he hosted Apple CEO Tim Cook on his new late-night TV show. "Tell me about it. Come on. Cat's out of the bag."
Cook wouldn't budge, but California's Department of Motor Vehicles 'fessed up Friday when it revealed that the agency met with Apple about the state's rules for testing autonomous vehicles on public streets, offering the clearest clue yet to Apple's long-rumored automotive ambitions.
Apple declined comment Friday, but online resumes and public records show the world's most valuable company has spent months poaching talent with automotive experience and renovating a new Sunnyvale office complex and auto workshop along what's become Silicon Valley's aorta of high-tech car innovation -- the Central Expressway.
Ten other companies -- including Google and carmakers Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Volkswagen -- already have permission from the state to test autonomous vehicles on public roads, and most of them have research labs near the 12-mile thoroughfare that stretches from Palo Alto through Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.
Google, long public about its self-driving goals, moved its growing team into a new hub along the Expressway in Mountain View this spring, shortly before unleashing its bubble-shaped, two-seater prototype cars onto local streets. The search giant this month signaled its move from experimentation to the consumer product stage when it hired auto industry veteran John Krafcik to be the first CEO of its 6-year-old project.
Which means that Apple, if fully autonomous cars are its goal, has a long way to go.
"To get to something like what Google has created requires the level of effort that Google has done," said Steve Shladover of UC Berkeley's Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology. "There's no magic. It's a lot of hard work."
Apple has been renovating an office complex this year near North Wolfe Road and the Expressway, and Sunnyvale permitting documents show references to Apple's "auto work area" in a warehouse on San Gabriel Drive. Public records also tied the site to advanced automotive technology when Apple invited the Contra Costa Transportation Authority to pay a visit in the spring. The authority runs a high-security road test site for self-driving and Internet-connected vehicles at the former Concord Naval Weapons Station in Contra Costa County, and Apple wanted more information about what the space was like. Honda begins testing self-driving cars there next week, but Apple appears to have dropped its interest several months ago.
"They just wanted to know about the facility," said Randy Iwasaki, the authority's director, in an interview Friday. "It could have been anything. It's perfect for testing."
Although Apple recently bought a 43-acre parcel in North San Jose, it doesn't have much room in Silicon Valley to test its automotive ideas with the secrecy that usually surrounds its tiny devices. The question is: Would it be willing to test in public?
The Guardian was first to report Friday about last month's one-hour meeting in Sacramento between Apple's legal team and DMV officials, including Deputy Director Bernard Soriano, an engineer who has led the state's effort to draft rules of the road for driverless cars.
"DMV often meets with various companies regarding DMV operations," the department's spokesman, Armando Botello, wrote in an email Friday confirming the talks. "The Apple meeting was to review DMV's autonomous vehicle regulations."
Apple's interest doesn't necessarily mean that it wants to build the kind of fully autonomous car that Google has been testing on Mountain View streets, or that it's interested in selling cars at all.
But no matter its intentions, its actions have contributed to a frenzy from rivals -- especially in the auto industry -- to take ownership of autonomous technology, in-car mapping software, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and dashboard Internet applications that could reshape the way we get around in the decades to come.
"What is important for us is that the brain of the car, the operating system, is not iOS or Android or someone else -- but it's our brain," Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Mercedes-maker Daimler, told reporters at the Frankfurt Motor Show this week, according to the New York Times.
He added that "we do not plan to become the Foxconn of Apple," referring to the overseas factories that manufacture iPhones and other Apple devices.
If Zetsche sounded worried, it might be because he spent time this summer hearing from Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's design guru, at a summit to talk about the future of the car, according to the Financial Times.
Ive likes a well-designed car. But if anyone thinks he's working on one that can drive by itself through city streets and in unpleasant weather conditions, Shladover said he doesn't see that happening until 2075.
"Far enough into the future that we don't have to think about it too seriously for a while," he said.
©2015 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.