Commentary

Apple Drives Home Self-Driving Points With The NHTSA

The Times of London calls it “the Silicon Valley secret everybody knew about.” In a five-page letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dated Nov. 22 that became public over the weekend, Apple Computer says that it “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,” writes Steve Kenner, Apple's director of product integrity.

“Apple has been working on its car effort, code-named Project Titan, for several years, but has never publicly acknowledged it,” write Tim Higgins and Tripp Mickle for the Wall Street Journal. “The secrecy has made the exact status of Project Titan hard to pinpoint. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Apple had restructured some elements of the project, which has had several hundred employees working on it, after placing it under veteran Apple executive Bob Mansfield in July.”

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The letter contains “no details on Apple's specific autonomous vehicle project,” points out Jack Purcher for Patently Apple. But although it “is far from being a smoking gun regarding Project Titan and their plans for an autonomous vehicle, the depth of Apple's feedback in this letter to the Obama administration does reveal the scope of Apple's understanding of the top issues facing those involved in the manufacture and designing of autonomous vehicles and their systems.”

In the letter, “Apple urged regulators not to impose too many restrictions on testing of self-driving cars, saying ‘established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally,’” reports Reuters’ David Shepardson. The “letter was prompted by its heavy investment in machine learning and autonomous systems,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr tells Shepardson in an emailed 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,” says Neumayr.

Kenner also “argue[s] that manufacturers should pool their data as they develop automated systems, to help everyone identify unusual situations or ‘edge cases’ that cars may encounter on the roads,” reports Matthew Taylor for The Guardian.

“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.” Kenner adds, however, that “data sharing should not come at the cost of privacy,” Taylor writes.

“While it's uncertain if we'll ever see an Apple-branded car on the road, it is certain that Apple wants to develop self-driving car technology and advance that part of the automotive industry,” concludes Valentina Palladino for Ars Technica.

Indeed, as Recode’s Johana Bhuiyan writes, the letter “doesn’t mean Apple is actually building a self-driving car — a series of reports indicates that Apple had been interested in that idea, but now seems more likely to be licensing out its software for other people’s self-driving cars.”

Meanwhile, while driverless cars may not eliminate spousal battles over the best way to get someplace, Apple does intend to improve the accuracy of it own navigational suggestions, which famously lag Google’s.

“The company has reportedly secured approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones over roads around the world to capture photos, videos, and other traffic data that would be bundled with Apple Maps. The company is also reportedly working on a feature that would let users navigate the inside of a building,” reportsFortune’s Don Reisinger in his weekly roundup of Apple news. Some of the new features could be released next year.

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