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Apple confirms interest in self-driving car tech

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Apple Inc. believes self-driving vehicles have the potential to “greatly enhance the human experience” — from saving lives to providing new means of transportation.

The tech giant’s comments were outlined in a Nov. 22 letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the Obama administration’s proposed self-driving guidelines that call for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on testing and safety of autonomous cars to federal regulators before the cars are sold to the public. It marks the first time Apple has publicly shown interest in self-driving technology.

“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,” Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, wrote to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind.

“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.”

The five-page letter in no way states that Apple is interested in building its own vehicles. Kenner focuses the letter on the automated technologies and systems in the vehicles as well as the government policies.

Kenner commended federal regulators on several parts of the policy, including data sharing and ethical considerations.

However, he asked federal regulators to “amend or clarify” its position on exemptions for testing internal-development vehicles on public roads. Federal regulators would allow already established car companies to perform controlled tests of automated vehicles on public roadways, while Apple and other newcomers would have to apply for exemptions to conduct testing. Kenner asked that the playing field by leveled: “This would create a fair environment for all companies to make progress toward automated vehicles.”

Kenner also asked for “minor revisions” to the government’s safety assessment protocol: Clarifying if a company needs pre-approval by NHTSA prior to testing automated vehicles; and recommendations on streamlining the safety assessment process if changes to the technologies are made within the four-month evaluation process.

The letter was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. It was one of reportedly more than 1,100 letters to NHTSA on the automated vehicle guidelines. Other automotive and tech companies, including General Motors Co. and Google Inc.-parent Alphabet Inc. also submitted opinions.

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Twitter: @MikeWayland