Apple admits that it's working on self-driving car technologies

If there's one thing that Apple values more than most other tech companies, it's product secrecy. Whereas other big name tech companies like Google and Microsoft enjoy showing users what type of crazy new technologies they've been working on, Apple in contrast prefers to keep everything under wraps until it has a shipping product to show off.

That said, a recent letter that Apple sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finally gives us some concrete proof that the company has a strong and ongoing interest in self-driving car technology. Sure, it was no secret that Apple was working on a car initiative of some sort given its hiring spree of engineers with deep experience across the entirety of the car design and manufacturing process. Still, it was never entirely clear if Apple was initially looking into building a car of its own or, perhaps, focusing on ancillary software technologies instead.

Until now.

The aforementioned letter to the NHTSA was sent out on November 22, 2016 but only came to light over the weekend. The letter, penned by former Ford engineer Steven Kenner, relays 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 full letter reads:

Apple is pleased to provide the following comments on the proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy (Policy), published by the Department of Transportation and the National Highway TraSafety Administration (NHTSA). Apple believes this Policy will be fundamental to ensuring the safety and public acceptance of automated vehicles while providing a flexible path for innovation.

Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal. 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.

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.

Apple affirms that, in order to best protect the traveling public and keep up with the pace of innovation, NHTSA should expedite requests for exemption and interpretation and petitions for rulemaking. NHTSA and Congress should also continue to explore new tools and authorities like those outlined in Section IV of the Policy—including expanded exemption authority—with the goal of fostering innovation, improving regulatory flexibility, and encouraging the development of life-saving technology

Notably, rumors of Apple researching the development of its own branded car have been swirling about for many months. Just two months ago, however, the New York Times published a story relaying that Apple was "rethinking what it plans to do about self-driving cars."

That report reads in part:

In a retrenchment of one of its most ambitious initiatives, Apple has shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees, according to three people briefed on the move who were not allowed to speak about it publicly.

The job cuts are the latest sign of trouble with Apple’s car initiative. The company has added resources to the project — code-named Titan — over the last two years, but it has struggled to make progress. And in July, the company brought in Bob Mansfield, a highly regarded Apple veteran, to take over the effort.

As it stands now, it's widely believed that Apple has put its ambitions of designing and manufacturing an electric car on hold as it refocuses its efforts on developing self-driving car technology.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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