We're a long way from seeing an Apple-made self-driving car on the road. But a letter from the company to a government agency at least makes the talk of Apple being involved in the development of automated cars a lot more real.
That letter, written by Apple last month to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and now available as a downloadable PDF, doesn't reveal any specifics about technology Apple is working on. But Steve Kenner, Apple's director of public integrity, does say 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.”
Apple sent the letter to the NHTSA to weigh in on a proposed policy about automated vehicle testing. In the letter, the company asks about clear definitions for things like liability in the event of a self-driving car crash and what effects new regulations could have on an emerging field of tech. This is a big deal, because Apple wouldn't bother asking these kinds of questions if it didn't have plans to either bring an actual self-driving vehicle to market or to at least be heavily involved in someone else's effort.
For the record, current law states that in an autonomous vehicle without actual driver controls such as a steering wheel or pedals, the passengers are not liable for any accidents. However, the laws do not state what parties would be liable, something that could include the makers of the vehicle, the makers of the self-driving software, or another entity entirely.
Apple also asked questions about privacy, especially as it relates to personal information gathered about drivers. The company acknowledges that sharing of anonymous driving between car makers would be big help in advancing tech, but that it shouldn't come at the expense of distributing potentially sensitive data to multiple third-parties.
Kenner's letter also placed emphasis on cooperation with Europe to ensure a "harmonized" policy for self-driving cars, in addition to regulatory flexibility to allow for room for innovation.
So while we still nothing almost nothing about Apple's mysterious self-driving car, this letter clearly shows that Apple is getting more serious about delivering something, perhaps sooner rather than later.