Apple, better known for laptops and mobile phones, has admitted for the first time that it is working on technology to develop self-driving cars.
The company, which has been rumoured to be interested in the automated car market for the past two years, confirmed its previously secret initiative in a statement to the US highways regulator.
“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,” the letter from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, to the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated.
The letter offered no details of the project, instead highlighting the “significant societal benefits of automated vehicles”, which it described as a life-saving technology, potentially preventing millions of car crashes and thousands of fatalities each year.
Although fully automated cars are not expected to be in use in the UK for several years, trials have already taken place both in Britain and the US.
The UK government is keen to ensure the country is at the forefront of a fast developing market that could be worth £900bn by 2025, according to a KPMG study. Earlier this year, ministers launched a consultation on changes to motor insurance rules and the highway code aimed at allowing self-driving cars to be on the roads by 2020.
The business secretary, Greg Clark, said at the time: “The global market for autonomous vehicles presents huge opportunities for our automotive and technology firms. The research that underpins the technology and software will have applications way beyond autonomous vehicles.”
Rumours of Apple’s interest in the car market surfaced early last year. Dubbed Project Titan, the internal initiative was reportedly staffed by more than 1,000 engineers and other personnel working at top secret labs in Sunnyvale, California, some of whom were pulled from important consumer product teams.
But the letter from Kenner, dated 22 November but which has only now emerged, is the first time the company has admitted it is investing in driverless car technology.
Kenner’s letter leaves open the possibility that Apple will go on to design and produce a car of its own, rather than merely provide its technology to an existing manufacturer. Earlier this year the company was rumoured to be in talks to take over the British car manufacturer McClaren.
“To maximise the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation, and promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally,” Apple writes.
Kenner argues that manufacturers should pool their data as they develop automated systems, to help everyone identify unusual situations or “edge cases” that cars might encounter on the roads.
“Companies should share de-identified scenario and dynamics data from crashes and near-misses,” Kenner writes. “By sharing data, the industry will build a more comprehensive data set than any one company could create alone.”
However, the letter adds: “Data sharing should not come at the cost of privacy.”
Apple urges the regulator to continue “thoughtful exploration of the ethical issues” of self-driving cars.
“Because automated vehicles promise such a broad and deep human impact, companies should consider the ethical dimensions of them in comparably broad and deep terms.”
The letter says these considerations include privacy, how the cars’ software systems make decisions and the impact on employment and public spaces.
Kenner ends the letter by stating: “Apple looks forward to collaborating with NHTSA and other stakeholders so that the significant societal benefits of automated vehicles can be realized safely, responsibly, and expeditiously.”
Several large tech companies and traditional car manufacturers are already working on automated vehicle technology. Uber has raced ahead of its competitors, deploying Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which do not require hands on the wheel, as part of the company’s regular taxi service.
It is also developing a driverless car in partnership with the Swedish carmaker Volvo.
The electric car company Tesla is also involved, although it raised concerns earlier this year about the implications of driverless vehicles after one of its cars using autopilot mode was involved in a fatal crash.
Last month, a Google self-driving car collided with another vehicle after the latter ran through a red light.