Apple’s Critique Of Driverless Car Policy Doesn’t Clarify Its Own Plans – Forbes

Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., left, is seen in a car with comedian James Corden during an event in San Francisco in September. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Apple’s courteous, albeit bland, letter to federal regulators weighing in on preliminary guidelines for development and testing of self-driving cars has again ginned up excitement and speculation about its eventual entry into the automotive space, yet revealed nothing about actual plans to do so. As CEO Tim Cook put it, it’s still Christmas Eve.

The letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, confirms what was already known: the company has a program to develop automated driving systems. Should Apple want to run road tests of its self-driving technology, Kenner’s letter emphasizes that official policies shouldn’t discriminate against companies that haven’t previously participated in the auto market or that intend to sell vehicles.

As currently written, proposed U.S. guidelines don’t clarify whether test vehicles that may not be intended for retail sale can receive an exemption to operate on public roads without a lengthy approval process, according to Kenner’s letter. Apple wants explicit wording in the new rules that would do that for driverless “internal development vehicles.”

“To maximize the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation and promote fair competition, established automakers and new entrants should be treated equally,” Kenner said. The exemption sought would allow Apple, which has no history of building cars, to avoid having to go through a lengthy approval process for every step in the development of test vehicles.

Apple’s commentary on nascent U.S. policy, and the disclosure in the letter that it’s “excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation” is its clearest statement to date that it does have an automotive program. Yet the company is clearly not ready to discuss whether it envisions being a provider of software and tech for robotic vehicles or perhaps someday will even build and sell them.

Over the past year, there’s been little more to go on beyond rumors, speculation and personnel changes about Apple’s car plans. At the start of 2016, Vice President of Design Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who’d apparently led Apple’s car program from its inception in 2014, reportedly left that role. In July, the Wall Street Journal said Apple tapped engineer Bob Mansfield to take over. The company was rumored to be in talks with a number of automotive engineering firms for months, and the Financial Times reported in September the company was poised to buy supercar maker McLaren, presumably to get access to its engineering group. So far, that hasn’t happened.

In October, reports surfaced that Apple had cut “hundreds” of engineering and software jobs on its auto team, and was on the fence about the project’s fate.

Rival Google, which ignited the race to develop driverless vehicles more than six years ago, hasn’t laid out its strategy to bring the technology to market, though it’s clear that it has one. The company’s hiring of long-time automotive executive *John Krafcik in September 2015 was a clear signal it intended to create a business around the technology, and company officials have indicated that the team is spinning off from Alphabet’s X skunkworks to soon become a stand-alone unit.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s Tesla, Ford, General Motors, rideshare firms Uber and Lyft, Volvo, BMW and a host of tech and automotive suppliers are racing to get driverless technology to market as soon as it can be validated for reliable real-world use.

Apple’s circumspect public comments indicate the company is keeping its options open, while committing to nothing. At a February shareholder meeting in Cupertino, California, Cook responded to a question about Apple’s car program as follows: “Do you remember when you were a kid, and Christmas Eve, it was so exciting, you weren’t sure what was going to be downstairs? Well, it’s going to be Christmas Eve for a while.”

Ten months later, there’s still no sign of Santa.

(*The author worked for Krafcik for a year, before he joined Google.)

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