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Apple's car letter: What's it driving at?

A note to a US agency is the closest we've come to official word from Apple on an autonomous car project. But it doesn't exactly shine brights on the effort.

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Those hoping for another peep under the hood of Apple's mysterious car project are in luck. It's only a peep though.

In a November letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a US government agency that sets and enforces safety standards for vehicles, Apple said it's "investing heavily in the study of machine learning and automation" and is "excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation."

That's the closest we've come to a public acknowledgement from the company that it's got something in the works regarding self-driving or autonomous vehicles. So far, details about an Apple car effort, supposedly called Project Titan, have surfaced in news stories the company has declined to verify.

The remarks could line up with an October report that said Apple has turned away from the idea of building an actual car and instead is focusing on designing the brains required to make a given vehicle autonomous, technology the company could license to carmakers. Given the uncertainty surrounding the allegedly named Project Titan, though, it's impossible to say for sure.

When asked to comment, Apple would say only that "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."

Self-driving vehicles have revved up the tech industry's imagination. Other companies exploring the field include Google, which has been testing driverless vehicles for several years now; Tesla Motors, in the headlines last June and July over a fatality involving the Autopilot system in some of its cars; and Uber, which showed off its first autonomous car, a Ford Fusion hybrid, this past May in Pittsburgh.

Apple's five-page letter to the NHTSA is a response to an agency request for public comment on the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, a document the agency calls a "starting point that provides needed initial guidance to industry, government, and consumers." The deadline for comment was November 22, the date of Apple's letter, but it's not clear when the letter was posted online.

In the letter, Steve Kenner, director of product integrity at Apple, talks up the potential of self-driving cars, acknowledges the need for strong safeguards and says safety can be achieved without putting the brakes on innovation.

"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," Kenner writes.

"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."

Among the main points in the letter:

  • While ensuring safety, the NHTSA should streamline the process that governs how and when companies can test self-driving cars on public roads.
  • Companies should consider the ethical dimensions of autonomous vehicles, including how self-driving cars could affect jobs and impact public spaces.
  • Companies should share data on crashes and near misses to improve safety but should adhere to principles designed to "protect individuals' fundamental right to privacy."
  • Here's the letter in full: