Innovation

Apple hints that self-driving car rumors may be true in recent letter to NHTSA

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an Apple executive said the company is 'investing heavily' in machine learning and automation in areas including transportation.

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Image: Conner Forrest/TechRepublic

Apple has finally hinted that rumors about its mystery car project may be true. In a November letter recently posted on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website, Apple director of product integrity Steve Kenner stated that "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 also offered feedback on the government's proposed guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology.

Rumors of an Apple car began circulating in 2014, supposedly internally dubbed "Project Titan." While it was originally planned for release in 2017, Apple restructured the project in July, placing it under a new manager and cutting dozens of employees, the Wall Street Journal reported. Some sources have reported the company expects to launch a car by 2021.

"Apple has been investing a lot in automotive technology and hiring a lot of top level talent in auto-related artificial intelligence over the past several years, though it has kept the effort secret," said Michael Ramsey, a research director at Gartner. "The company's plans to come to market are still a bit murky, but it is easy to envision an Apple ecosystem in a car, built around the human-machine interface, the personal assistant (Siri), and then the logic that controls the vehicle itself."

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust

While Apple has the resources to build its own car, the company's history is that of a designer, not a manufacturer, Ramsey said. If Apple does decide to build its own vehicle, it would make sense for the company to purchase a small car manufacturer, rather than attempt to build its own car company from scratch, as Tesla did.

"Apple has a built-in advantage because it has an ecosystem of users already and could tie a user's Apple ID to the vehicle, arranging for identification and payments for rides, loading favorite music or destinations. It's a powerful combination," Ramsey said. "But building a car is incredibly expensive and time consuming, and it would be a huge financial decision for Apple to pull the trigger."

In the letter, Kenner also said that, when executed properly and in accordance with the guidelines, "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."

"Apple looks forward to collaborating with NHTSA and other stakeholders so that the significant societal benefits of automated vehicles can be realized safely, responsibly, and expeditiously," Kenner wrote in closing.

Should it begin experimenting with driverless technology, Apple would join companies including Google, Tesla, Uber, and Intel in the autonomous vehicle market—which is not a surprise, according to Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and expert in the autonomous vehicles space.

"Companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon want to be ubiquitous in our lives," Walker Smith said. "For better or worse, driving is a big part of many people's lives, so I'm not surprised that Apple is exploring the car as another device or at least as another space. We'll likely see some interesting partnerships in the next few years as companies combine their strengths."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Apple director of product integrity Steve Kenner stated that the company is investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation in transportation.
  2. The letter marks the first time Apple has acknowledged its much-rumored vehicle project, and also offered feedback to the government's recently proposed guidelines for autonomous vehicle technology.
  3. While Apple has a large ecosystem of users and could potentially tie a customer's user ID to a connected car, it is also a large financial and manufacturing commitment to build cars from the ground up, experts say.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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