Apple finally, kinda-sorta says that it wants to build self-driving cars

December 5, 2016

The will it/won't it debate around Apple's not-so-secret desire to build self-driving cars has taken an interesting turn. In a recent letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company gave its biggest hint yet that autonomous vehicles are on its radar. 

The five-page letter was dated November 22 and was signed by Apple's Director of Product Integrity, Steve Kenner. Among other things, it praises the potential benefits of self-driving vehicles:

"Executed properly under NHTSA’s guidance, automated vehicles have the potential to greatly enhance the human experience—to prevent millions of car crashes and thousands of fatalities each year and to give mobility to those without. It is vital that those developing and deploying automated vehicles follow rigorous safety principles in design and production. Such principles should not, however, inhibit companies from making consequential progress; there is no need to compromise safety or innovation."

That said, the letter also encourages NHTSA to adopt policies that make it easier for companies to conduct tests of autonomous technology. And perhaps most importantly, the letter makes a case for allowing non-automakers to develop self-driving vehicles, provided those companies comply with the proper safety standards:

"To maximize the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation, and promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally. Instead of applying for exemptions, all companies should be given an opportunity to implement internal safety processes summarized in a Safety Assessment. This is the most efficient and effective way to ensure that development vehicles are designed and operated with a level of safety equivalent to best practices and [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards] and will not be used by the general public."

Nowhere in the letter does Apple refer to Project Titan, its internal division tasked with developing self driving vehicles. However, the letter does state that "[Apple] 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." So, you know: hint-hint.

More importantly, the letter gives few if any hints about whether Apple aims to produce autonomous cars itself (or with a partner), or whether it only intends to develop the software that powers self-driving vehicles, as its chief tech rival, Google, is doing.

However, if Apple is still on track to begin manufacturing either of those things by 2019 as was rumored--and if Apple's barrier of secrecy with cars is as permeable as it is with iPhones--we should get a clearer idea of the company's plans pretty soon.

You can read the entire letter from Apple to NHTSA on Scribd.

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