WASHINGTON—For years, Apple has gone to lengths to keep its self-driving endeavors under wraps. The tech giant recently moved its autonomous vehicle program into the spotlight.
Apple filed documents with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the nation's top auto safety regulator, that describe the company's testing program, its approach to safety and an outline of how it ensures its self-driving system is working properly.
Safety assessment filings, according to the Department of Transportation's automated vehicle policy, are voluntary and not required for testing or deployment.
That Apple chose to file an assessment anyway may signal the company's intention to present a more public and consumer-friendly face for its autonomous-vehicle program.
"We are excited about the potential of automated systems in many areas, including transportation," the filing said. "In particular, we believe that automated driving systems (ADS) have the promise to greatly enhance the human experience in three key areas: improving road safety, increasing mobility, and realizing broader societal benefits."
Apple did not comment further last week.
The filing came one week after the California Department of Motor Vehicles released its latest batch of disengagement reports, which provide information on companies' autonomous testing performance on the state's public roads.
In its filing, Apple disclosed it had more than 70 vehicles registered in the state, and that they had collectively driven 80,739 miles in the April 2017 through November 2018 reporting period.
Safety driver required
In Apple's seven-page filing, "Our Approach to Automated Driving System Safety," the company said it required a safety driver and an operator in the front seats of its vehicles whenever they're operating in automated mode.
If the system needs to return vehicle control to a safety driver, Apple says visual and audible signals alert the safety driver, and that "understanding this communication is a significant part of the safety driver and operator training."
Further, it says steering, braking and acceleration commands issued by the self-driving system "have set limits to ensure that its actions can be anticipated and interrupted by the safety driver."
For example, when the Apple vehicles intend to change lanes, the company says the changes are done in such a way that the human driver can take control before the vehicle leaves its current lane if the driver believes such a move is inadvisable.
At least for now, Apple describes vehicle systems designed for use in testing only.
Hazard analysis "is focused on the planned use case of the test vehicles … and the fact that a safety driver will always be present," the filing says.
Apple is the 11th company to file a safety assessment, joining Waymo, Ford, General Motors and others, such as startups Zoox and Nuro.
In 2017, NHTSA's second federal automated vehicle policy outlined 12 areas in which regulators hoped companies would describe their efforts to design and use automated vehicles, including their operational design domains, data-gathering efforts and plans for handling system failures.
Last week, NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King recognized the companies that have filed safety assessments.
"Open communication is essential to building public confidence and acceptance toward the future adoption of ADS technologies," she said. "The department continues to encourage entities to publicly release their safety assessments and applauds those that already have."