It looks like Apple hasn’t given up on a self-driving car

It changed the world with the iPhone: What can it do with cars?
It changed the world with the iPhone: What can it do with cars?
Image: AP Photo
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Over the weekend, it was reported (paywall) that Apple had tacitly admitted it was working on a long-rumored self-driving car. The admittance, inasmuch as there was one, came in the form of a letter from Apple sent to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Nov. 22 in response to the government agency’s recent announcement of rules for companies looking to develop self-driving cars for US roads.

There were two paragraphs in Apple’s five-page letter that more-or-less solidify the belief that Apple is working on an autonomous vehicle (the emphasis is ours). Here’s the first paragraph:

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.

To date, the majority of Apple’s work with machine learning has manifested itself in software for the iPhone or other existing Apple products. That includes object-recognition software in its Photos app, natural-language understanding for transcribing voicemails, and the backbone of Apple’s digital assistant, Siri. (Hopefully its cars will drive a lot better than Siri understands.)

And the second paragraph:

Both Congress and NHTSA have long recognized that manufacturers need to conduct limited and controlled testing on public roads. In fact, Congress recently enacted a provision in the FAST Act explicitly allowing established manufacturers to test on public roads without pursuing exemptions from FMVSS.10 But the FAST Act does not provide the same opportunity to new entrants. To maximize the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation, and promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally.

Here it seems to imply that Apple considers itself a “new entrant” in the automotive industry. It has been working for years on in-car technology in the form of Apple CarPlay, a simplified iOS operating system that runs through a car’s onboard entertainment system when an iPhone is connected. But it seems to be suggesting that what it’s working on extends far beyond car software. The company made specific suggestions about changes it would make to the NHTSA’s proposed rules, including the open-sourcing of anonymized crash data, so that car companies aiming to build autonomous cars could share data to protect against rare accidents that are difficult to replicate in simulations.

At the same time, it was recently reported that Apple laid off or reassigned a large portion of its self-driving car team, or had them work on just specific aspects of a car, like advanced battery technology. At one point, it was estimated that over 1,000 people were secretly working on Apple’s car project, including a team dedicated solely to autonomous driving software, and designers with luxury car experience. In September, The New York Times reported that that number has since dwindled.

Apple wasn’t immediately available to comment on its plans for a car, or what its letter to the NHTSA actually signaled.

Regardless, Apple is spending a lot of money (even if it’s still a relatively small portion of its overall revenue) on research and development. In 2015, it spent over $8 billion on R&D, compared with around $500 million per year in the years leading up to the development of the iPhone. Apple’s recent consumer electronics products may have underwhelmed, but it’s highly unlikely that it’s spending that much cash to reinvigorate its phone or computer lines, or even to develop new products, such as the rumored smart glasses. That amount of money is likely being spent on something far larger, such as a car. For comparison, Alphabet has spent $7.1 billion, $9.8 billion, and $12.3 billion in the last three years on R&D, and it publicly announced its self-driving car program (along with myriad other capital-intensive ”moonshots”roughly six years ago.

Apple appears to be building up to something big. The letter to the NHTSA is the clearest indication yet that it is indeed working on a self-driving vehicle, even if that letter is rather vague.