Apple letter all but confirms plans for self-driving cars and commitment to privacy

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We’ve known (or at least believed) for some time that Apple has been working on some form of automated vehicle, but the company has remained tight-lipped about what it is up to. Now, however, a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the strongest official hint that Apple is working on something.

The letter — written by Apple’s Director of Product Integrity, Steve Kenner, back in November — has just come to light, and it Apple praises NHTSA’s policies on automated vehicles, and stresses the importance of machine learning, data sharing, and user privacy in ensuring the development and safety of such technologies.

While Kenner does not go quite as far as saying outright that Apple is working on an automated car, the letter drops very strong hints to that effect. The level of concern the company shows about policies relating to automated cars would also be rather strange if it did not have a vested interest in the field.

Writing in response to the NHTSA’s proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, Kenner says:

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.

It’s not clear exactly what Apple has in mind, but it’s possible that a fully-automated car might not be on the cards just yet. There is an interest footnote to the letter which defines automated vehicles as “vehicles equipped with one or more systems that automate all or part of the driving task”.

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Apple points out that safety is a major concern not only for manufacturers of such vehicles, but also for the public if they are ever to be widely accepted — something which has been thrown into the headlines with recent automated vehicle crashes and near-misses. The company is keen for firms working in the field to share data with a view to driving progress, but recognizes that there are privacy and ethics concerns surrounding this.

Kenner writes:

Apple agrees that companies should share de-identified scenario and dynamics data from crashes and near-misses. Data should be sufficient to reconstruct the event, including time-series of vehicle kinematics and characteristics of the roadway and objects. By sharing data, the industry will build a more comprehensive dataset than any one company could create alone.

This will allow everyone in the industry to design systems to better detect and respond to the broadest set of nominal and edge-case scenarios. Apple looks forward to collaborating with other stakeholders to define the specific data that should be shared.

Data sharing should not come at the cost of privacy. Apple believes that companies should invest the resources necessary to protect individuals’ fundamental right to privacy.

We’re not really any closer to understanding what Apple is working on. Rather than creating a complete vehicle, it is possible that the company is more concerned with creating the software and ecosystem that will be used in other vehicles; only time will tell. What we do know, however, is that Apple is extremely interested in automation and definitely wants a slice of that pie.

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Photo credit: Dmitro2009 / Shutterstock

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