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Apple Unveils 'Worst Kept Secret' About Interest in Self-Driving Vehicles

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Apple admitted its interest in highly automated vehicles and noted a few concerns regarding the proposed regulations.

Apple has finally acknowledged the company’s interest in autonomous vehicle technology.

In a letter (PDF) to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) addressing the proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, Apple Director of Product Integrity Steve Kenner disclosed that the Cupertino, Calif.-based company has been “investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation, and is excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation.”

While this letter confirms that the company is interested in playing a role in the future of mobility, it still remains to be seen how integral this role will be, whether Apple will create software for connected cars or manufacture their own self-driving vehicles.

Kenner also discussed the enormous potential self-driving cars have in reducing roadway accidents, thereby decreasing fatalities, and posits that the regulations are vital to ensure the safety of this burgeoning technology.

Apple supports the data-sharing component of the policy, stating that by sharing data, “the industry will build a more comprehensive data set than any one company could create alone.”

The reduction of mistake duplication will inevitably allow the technology to evolve at a more rapid pace. However, many industry leaders have been wary about the oversharing of sensitive data that when made public could lessen competitive advantages.

Apple believes the policy’s privacy section adequately puts in protections claiming that data sharing should not come at the cost of privacy. "Apple supports NHTSA’s privacy principles," Kenner wrote, "and believes the industry should refine the Consumer Privacy Protection Principles to be more aligned with the Policy.”

Kenner also made a recommendation regarding a safety assessment letter required for testing, claiming that the current draft regulations are vague.

“As written, the Safety Assessment provision of the policy could be interpreted as requiring pre-approval by NHTSA prior to testing. This could result in a testing black-out period while NHTSA reviews the Safety Assessment. If NHTSA does not intend for the Safety Assessment to be treated as a pre-approval, Apple suggests that NHTSA clarify this provision."

The company also urged the administration to work with international bodies such as UNECE, G7 and OECD, with the goal of "adopting a harmonized approach to automated vehicles.”

The NHTSA AV policy can be viewed here (PDF).

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.