Apple sheds light on safety of its autonomous-vehicle program


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For years, Apple has gone to lengths to keep its self-driving endeavors under wraps. On Wednesday, the tech giant moved its autonomous-vehicle program into the spotlight.

Apple submitted documents to NHTSA, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, that describe the nature of the company’s testing program, its approach to safety and a broad outline of how it ensures its self-driving system is working properly.

The company didn’t have to file the safety assessment. According to the Department of Transportation’s federal automated vehicle policy, the sharing of safety assessments is voluntary and not required for testing nor deployment.

That Apple chose to issue an assessment anyway may signal the company’s intentions 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 company’s document 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 immediately comment Wednesday.

Issuance of the assessment comes one week after the California Department of Motor Vehicles released its latest batch of disengagement reports, which broadly offer 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 reporting period from April 2017 through November 2018.

In its seven-page safety assessment, which Apple titled “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 control of the vehicle 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 that lane changes are performed in such a way that the human driver can take control before the vehicle departs 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 report says.

Apple is the 11th company to release a safety assessment, joining the likes of Waymo, Ford, General Motors and others, such as startups Zoox and Nuro.

In 2017, NHTSA’s second federal automated vehicle policy outlined 12 specific areas in which regulators hoped companies would describe their efforts to design and deploy automated vehicles, including their operational design domains, data-gathering efforts and plans for handling system failures.

On Wednesday, NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King recognized the companies that have submitted reports.

“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.”




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