Apple has for the first time publicly acknowledged its plans to develop self-driving cars, with a letter that urges the US highways regulator to promote “fair competition” between newcomers to the automotive industry and traditional manufacturers.
In an unusually direct statement accompanying the letter, an Apple spokesman confirmed its work on autonomous systems that could be used to transform “the future of transportation”. Apple’s letter touts 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.
The disclosure highlights how Apple may struggle to maintain its notorious secrecy in new product development as it enters more highly regulated markets, from transportation to healthcare.
Hundreds of Apple staff have been working on an electric car for more than two years, people familiar with the project say. The Financial Times first reported the secret research lab, which is based outside its Cupertino headquarters in neighbouring Sunnyvale, in February last year.
Since then, despite leaks about the project’s sometimes difficult progress, Apple executives have refused to admit that the automotive initiative exists.
That position will be harder to maintain after the publication of a letter from Apple to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as part of the regulator’s regular dialogue with manufacturers about its rules for the fast-developing technology. The letter was signed by Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, and was submitted on November 22.
“Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal,” Mr Kenner writes. “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.”
He goes on to propose privacy safeguards for consumers alongside increased data sharing between manufacturers, to promote safety, as well as ethical considerations about the impact of autonomous cars on jobs and public spaces.
The letter follows a recent shift in Apple’s priorities towards developing the autonomous systems that underpin a car, after company veteran Bob Mansfield was appointed as the new head of the automotive project earlier this year, according to people close to the matter.
An Apple spokesman confirmed the letter, giving the clearest statement yet of the company’s intentions.
“We’ve provided comments to NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems,” the Apple spokesman said. “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.”
Despite its current focus on the systems underlying a self-driving vehicle, the 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.
“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.
As well as levelling the playing field for Silicon Valley newcomers who may be competing with traditional carmakers in Detroit, regulations should allow for faster testing of new iterations of technology, it says. Waiting for regulatory clearance each time could add months to the development process.
In one of the five-page letter’s more controversial passages, Apple says that manufacturers should pool their data as they develop automated systems, to help everyone identify the multitude of 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,” Apple writes. “By sharing data, the industry will build a more comprehensive data set than any one company could create alone.”
However, it added: “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,” Apple writes. These considerations include privacy, how the cars’ software systems make decisions and the impact on employment and public spaces, it says.
Experts are divided on whether driverless cars could cause huge congestion or clear the roads, and on the extent to which they might free up space in cities that was previously used for parking lots and garages to build new housing or parks. Automation of jobs such as taxi and truck drivers might increase unemployment among low-skilled workers, some analysts have warned.