Apple Inc. confirmed for the first time its interest in autonomous-vehicle technology, but it remains unlikely the company will design or build a complete car.
In a Nov. 22 letter to U.S. transportation regulators, Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, suggested Apple’s focus is on the software that would control a self-driving car. He said the company is “investing heavily in machine learning and automation” for many purposes “including transportation.”
The letter, which came to light late Friday, marked Apple’s first public statements about its car effort, dubbed Project Titan, after years of secrecy. Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said the company provided comments to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because of its investments in automation and machine learning, a type of software. “We want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry,” Mr. Neumayr said.
The emphasis on software is in line with reports over the past year that Apple’s car effort has shifted its attention from building a car to designing an autonomous-driving system. Last summer, Apple eliminated some positions on the project that were focused on car development and added staff with software backgrounds.
“You could interpret this as a sign that they’re trying to invest where they feel like they can still make a difference, whereas building a car might be something they found really may not be worth it to them,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
Apple’s letter was one of more than 1,100 submitted to NHTSA, which is weighing new regulations for automated vehicles. Others who submitted comments include traditional auto makers such as General Motors Co. as well as Silicon Valley companies moving into the field such as Google parent Alphabet Inc.
The letter revealed potential conflicts between Apple and traditional car makers. Apple said it supports NHTSA’s plan to share data on accidents and near misses, in an effort to improve the software that controls autonomous vehicles. Just as a human’s driving skills improve with more time on the road, those systems get better as they process more data.
In its own comment to NHTSA, however, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major companies like GM and Ford Motor Co., questioned the feasibility of sharing data, saying it was impractical, unreasonable and “unorthodox” to share information among competitors.
Richard Wallace, a director at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that compared with traditional auto makers, Apple had more “to gain than lose” from sharing data because it is new to motor vehicles.
Apple called on Congress and NHTSA to amend rules that allow traditional auto makers to perform controlled tests of automated vehicles, while forcing new entrants like Apple to apply for an exemption to do similar tests. Mr. Kenner said to “promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally.”
The letter also shows how Apple increasingly must deal with government regulators, as it expands its scope from high-tech consumer products to areas such as health care and transportation.
Navigating that world won’t be easy for Apple and other tech companies that are used to rapid change, said Dave Sullivan, an industry analyst at AutoPacific Inc. He said agencies like NHTSA move slowly and took nearly a decade to approve rearview cameras mandates.
“Imagine how long it could take to change some deeper items like vehicle testing,” Mr. Sullivan said.
The letter also showed Apple’s autonomous-vehicle ambitions go beyond the U.S. Mr. Kenner encouraged NHTSA to work with international groups such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and others to develop a “harmonized approach to automated vehicles.”