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Delphi will showcase its latest autonomous-driving technology at CES 2017 (Photo: Delphi)

Apple may have scaled back its automotive ambitions, but the company still appears keen to take part in the transformation of the car industry.

In a letter to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Apple is calling for equal treatment of tech companies when they want to test automated driving technologies on public roads.

At the moment, established car manufacturers don't have to first pursue exemptions for tests of vehicles that do not fully conform to US safety standards, Apple says. But the rules don't provide the same opportunity to new players in the automotive industry, it added.

"To maximize the safety benefits of automated vehicles, encourage innovation, and promote fair competition, established manufacturers and new entrants should be treated equally," the company said in its letter. No company should have to apply for exemptions but all should implement agreed-upon safety processes for the tests, Apple said.

The technology giant was responding to a proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, which sets out rules for vehicles that come to market with more and more functions that take over tasks previously handled by the driver.

A growing number of automotive and tech companies are developing autonomous-driving technologies and want to test them on public roads, which prompted the US action.

Automotive supplier Delphi, for example, last year took an automated driving test car on a 3,400 mile trip across the US. Delphi, together with sensor technology specialist Mobileye, plans to demonstrate its latest automated driving systems at the CES consumer electronics show in January.

During the Las Vegas event, Delphi will, on a 6.3 mile drive, showcase its Centralized Sensing Localization and Planning (CSLP) automated driving system, which will be ready for production by 2019. CSLP offers a fully integrated automated driving system.

Carmakers expect to start selling vehicles with highly developed autonomous functions sometime in the next decade.

Press reports say Apple, which had built up a large automotive engineering team, has in recent months reduced the size of this operation and is now more focused on automated-driving technology than on building an actual car.

CEO Tim Cook said on a recent earnings call that Apple is always looking at "different sets of products." And he repeated earlier statements that the car as a connectivity hub remains of interest to Apple.

Apple's CarPlay technology, which connects the company's iPhone to a vehicle's infotainment system, is rapidly becoming a standard feature on new car models.

-By Arjen Bongard