An Apple official wrote that Apple is “invested” and “excited” about autonomous driving software in a recent letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It’s the strongest official public sign that Apple is currently working on self-driving car software, an open secret that Apple has never publicly confirmed.
In the Nov. 22 letter, Apple Director of Product Integrity Steve Kenner wrote 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.”
The rest of the comment in response to recently proposed guidelines by the NHTSA is primarily concerned about the regulation and paperwork surrounding vehicles in the development phase before they are publicly released.
In one example, Apple expects that a company testing these kind of autonomous driving features could rapidly iterate “multiple times within a four-month period.”
“In addition, Apple expects companies may add functionality or change a particular design or function multiple times within a four-month period. This rapid iteration should not require multiple Safety Assessments, which would be a significant administrative burden for both NHTSA and companies,” Apple wrote.
The letter offers several insights into Apple’s overall automotive strategy.
‘Internal development vehicles … never to be used by the general public’
Another priority for Apple is reducing the amount of paperwork it needs to publicly submit to run internal vehicles for development.
“To Apple’s knowledge, the [FMVSS] exemption process was intended for, and remains focused on, the sale of new motor vehicles to the public—not on the safe and controlled testing of development vehicles on public roads. However, the Policy suggests that companies must seek an exemption for public road testing of internal development vehicles not fully compliant with FMVSS.”
Apple’s preferred solution? It would like to perform tests without seeking an official exemption, which would slow down the process and possibly reveal secret details of Apple’s progress.
“While NHTSA does not have the ability to amend the FAST Act, it can amend the Policy to state that exemptions are not required for the controlled testing of internal development vehicles on public roads, provided they will never be used by the general public,” Apple writes.
Because Apple is so secretive, you’re unlikely to ever see an Apple autonomous test vehicle on public roads. More likely, Apple is testing them on private courses such as Gomentum Station, in California.
The story so far
Apple’s work on an electric car is not a secret. However, Apple has never officially confirmed the existence of a project. Tesla CEO Elon Musk once called it an “open secret.”
“It’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said about the project.
Apple essentially has a separate organization of about 1000 people called “Project Titan” working on automotive projects in industrial facilities in Sunnyvale, California and other satellite facilities.
When the project started in 2014, Apple wanted to build a complete electric car as a competitor to Tesla and other automotive companies by 2020. The autonomous driving component was planned as a feature for an update.
The project hit some snags and there was political infighting in the division. Earlier this year Apple brought on Bob Mansfeld — a long-time respected Apple engineer — who decided to cut back and set new goals.
Now, Apple is primarily working on autonomous driving software, and taking some interesting approaches, like using virtual reality to test and collect data.
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