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Reports of the demise of Apple Inc.’s self-driving car program may be exaggerated.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles on Friday gave Apple the go-ahead to test autonomous cars on public roads in the state. The permit clears the way for testing of “three vehicles, all 2015 Lexus RX450h (models), and six drivers.” It represents a rare, definitive public step for the company, whose plans for the autonomous and connected vehicle arena had grown unclear.

“Rumors had been rampant that Apple was dissolving its autonomous car development, but clearly, that is not so,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, in a released statement. “Apple could be a major player in autonomous vehicles, and few details have leaked out about its plans.”

Apple’s interest in autonomous and connected cars has been a subject of speculation for years. The company’s research efforts allegedly fell under the name Project Titan, with outsiders guessing as to how big a role Apple would play. Would they strive to design and build their own cars, or partner with others on a final product?

The project appeared to hit a speed bump in 2016. Media reports indicated members of the Titan team had been laid off. A September headline on the AppleInsider website claimed: “Apple fired dozens of Project Titan employes as autonomous car initiative shifts to underlying tech.”

Later in the year, however, an Apple official’s letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave a clearer indication of where the project stood.

“Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal,” wrote Steve Kenner, director of Apple’s Product Integrity. “The company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many area, including transportation.”

Following approval of its testing permit, Apple issued a similar statement touting its investment in machine learning technologies.

On Friday, Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, called Apple’s permit approval “encouraging.”

“Developing software along with the hardware will provide a product that’s not only safer, but more secure at a potentially even faster timeline than we’re already experiencing,” she said in a statement.

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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