Apple letter drops hints about self-driving car development

In an open letter, Apple encouraged the government to level the autonomous car playing field between 'new entrants' and 'established manufacturers' – in a way that would allow Apple to continue its own secretive research and development.

Matthias Schrader/AP/File
Eager shoppers wait in front of an Apple store in Munich, before the worldwide launch of the iPhone 6s.

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Apple’s director of product integrity Steve Kenner, responded to a set of proposed guidelines for regulating the fast-emerging autonomous car industry.

Apple’s suggestions include instructions for how industry data should be shared and controlled, as well as a request that new players in the self-driving car field have the same road testing rights as incumbents, which the The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act currently does not allow for.

“We’ve provided comments to NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems,” said Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr in a statement. “There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation, so we want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry.”

The Nov. 22 letter is the closest Apple has come to admitting what has been widely rumored in the tech world: that it is working on autonomous car technology.  

Project Titan, the name given to its not-so-secret project, started out as a research and development team working on designing a fully electric car. This summer, a string of new hires suggested that the team had shifted its focus to autonomous technology.

Further industry speculation suggests that Apple has scrapped the idea of building the car itself, at least for the time being, and is instead focusing on designing the software and perhaps partnering with an automaker in the future, as General Motors and Cruise Automation did earlier this year.

Focusing on software is more in line with the company’s historic expertise and fits its efforts to improve machine-learning capabilities that allow computers to adjust their behavior without being explicitly programmed.

In Kenner's letter, he offers proposals that uphold the veil of secrecy Apple has kept their autonomous projects under. For example, Kenner suggests that companies be able to test autonomous vehicles on the road without having to apply for the exemption currently required by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards – an exemption that, he argues, slows down the development process.

It also requires revealing the contents of the project.

Kenner’s letter focuses largely on streamlining the approval process. He suggests that small changes to a car’s design “should not require multiple Safety Assessments, which would be a significant administrative burden for both NHTSA and companies.”

Removing the exemption process entirely, Kenner writes, would also effectively level the playing field for “new entrants” to the autonomous car industry and give them the same opportunities that “established manufacturers” are granted. The FAST Act currently does not allow that.

Apple also addressed the issue of data, suggesting that companies working on autonomous technology should make their test data publicly available so that other companies could reconstruct crash events for research purposes.

“By sharing data, the industry will build a more comprehensive dataset than any one company could create alone,” Kenner wrote. “This will allow everyone in the industry to design systems to better detect and respond to the broadest set of nominal and edge-case scenarios.”

The letter offered no concrete details about the progress of Project Titan, except to acknowledge that “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.”

However, Kenner’s requests to the NHTSA offer clues. He encouraged the agency to work internationally, with groups such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which hints at plans to sell the Apple car product, whether that be a full car or just the software, internationally.

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