Apple again late to another market others pioneered. Or is it?

Cupertino's ambitions to apply machine learning to transportation revealed in letter

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Apple's long-rumoured interest in autonomous vehicles appears to be real.

The company seems to have written to United States' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to comment on its Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.

A widely-circulated letter signed by “Apple's director of product integrity Steve Kenner”, discusses the United States Government's recently-revealed autonomous vehicle policy.

We're using quotation marks and being a little cautious with our language here because we can't find evidence Kenner works for Apple or a link to the letter on the NHTSA site.

Assuming it is indeed from Apple, the letter falls short of mentioning Apple is working on anything with wheels.

“Apple uses machine learning to make its products and services smarter, more intuitive, and more personal,” the letter says. “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.”

That's nowhere near an “Apple is making self-driving cars” smoking gun.

As the five-page letter meanders on, it notes that established auto-makers have been offered access to public roads for tests. The letter says “To maximize the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation, and promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally.”

There's also a call for self-driving car-makers to be allowed to modify their wares within the allowed rest period without having to re-file paperwork.

The letter concludes by saying “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.”

To The Register's mind, it's foolish to assume that the letter proves Apple is working on actual cars. Clearly the company thinks it has something to offer autonomous cars. Which indeed it does: readers will likely be familiar with the many models of powerful portable computers Apple makes.

We advance this line of argument because Apple has, in the past, specialised in making gadgets that have enormous appeal but are for some reason not obvious to other companies. In retrospect, the jukebox-in-your-pocket that was the iPod and networked-computer-that-happens-to-make-phone-calls that was the iPhone were blindingly obvious. Yet no other company executed them well enough to achieve mass uptake.

Apple has, of late, been criticised for me-too products. The new MacBook Pro with its small touch-sensitive strip looks iterative and uninteresting compared to Microsoft's Surface Studio. And of course it is millions of kilometres behind Google and Tesla in the autonomous car caper. The Apple Watch appears to be a dead-end.

But perhaps, just perhaps, there's a hint in the letter's cautious language that Apple has a way to make autonomous cars purr. ®


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