This is a story that still has traction, despite the very questionable concept. The Wall Street Journal publishes a report about an alleged Apple project, code-named “Titan,” to build an electric car. Or maybe an electric van. Or maybe an electric motorcycle? How are we to know what they are really up to even if you assume the project name is correct and that it’s related to the car business?
As you might expect, there are loads of copying machines in the blogosphere, and this very prospect was picked up and taken seriously by loads of scribes who are trying to justify the possibility that such a product is actually under development. Of course that depends on whether or not the WSJ’s original report is accurate and not a serious misinterpretation of a set of facts or hints.
But even if the project is related to the automotive industry, it doesn’t necessarily spell car. Certainly existing car makers are no doubt skeptical. Yet another auto executive is quoted as saying that the complexities in machining metal and the other manufacturing steps required to build a motor vehicle are way out of Apple’s presumed comfort zone. This assumes that machining miniature components is far easier to do than making an engine piston, a car door and a handle. I wouldn’t presume to guess, except that the fundamentals of mass producing cars date back to the early 20th century. While there are arrays of onboard computers that form today’s motor vehicles, and more advanced schemes to reduce fuel consumption, the mechanicals are clearly based on concepts that have been around for years.
In other words, there are things Apple could do that are already part and parcel of the technologies tried and tested since 1908, when the Ford Model T was first built. Typical of Apple’s approach to entering — to them — new markets, they will look at the shortcomings of existing technology and usability and work out a solution.
But everything Apple has built so far can be sold in an Apple Store. A TV set would require a hefty redesign to handle big box retailing, and cars would obviously require separate dealerships that can manage test drives and service. Would it even be worth the bother?
This is not to say that a true Apple Car wouldn’t be successful, though it probably won’t be as cheap as your mainstream mid-sized car, which starts at around $21,000 or so. You expect that a fancy electric car with an Apple logo would cost several times that. The base price of the Tesla Model S is $69,900, hardly affordable for most people, unless, of course, there are huge incentives and expected high resale values that make for relatively cheap leases.
I still don’t see Apple going there. By the same token, I am not convinced Apple wants to build a TV set, and you can add that to the list of things Apple may not build in the next few years.
This doesn’t mean some future successor to Tim Cook wouldn’t have other priorities. For now, though, you can be certain there will be no Apple Toaster Oven or Apple Refrigerator, and that Apple won’t build washing machines or air conditioners.
But Apple will continue to tout HomeKit, which lets your Apple gear interact with the computer systems in your home appliances. An Apple thermostat or smoke detector? No, but certainly one of many opportunities for third parties to innovate.
By the same taken, a more developed Apple interface for cars that extends from the speedometer to the infotainment system, would present opportunities for car makers to give up on their lame systems and try something that mostly works without reference to a thick manual. Sure, a speedometer and a tachometer are staples of a motor vehicle, but the interaction among the more complicated components, such as climate control systems, radios and navigation systems, are usually done quite poorly.
Even worse, high-end cars are often far more difficult to operate than a cheaper vehicle. The excesses of BMW’s iDrive and the functional equivalents in an Audi, Mercedes-Benz and other luxury vehicles are well known. Not long ago, I was trying to help a relative figure out how to make sense of the controls on a used Benz, and it was real messy. From a single control wheel on the center console with buttons at the edges to the fact that even storing presets for your favorite radio stations involved navigating multiple menus, it’s clear that even the most respected auto makers haven’t a clue how to design elegant and intuitive interfaces.
Indeed, other than cars with the basic functions, once the onboard electronics take over and offer more sophisticated features, all bets are off. But CarPlay is, at best, but a partial solution to this mess.
Apple could clearly make contributions to many products and services that are part of your daily lifestyle. None of those contributions necessarily require manufacturing gear that is any larger than a 27-inch iMac. It may include licensing technology for Apple approved interfaces to other companies, or just building the APIs to allow their gadgets to interact with those products.
It’s clear, these days, that Apple is happy to give other companies opportunities to profit from their technology under the right circumstances. What’s more, Apple continues to be circumspect about which product categories to enter and how to enter them. It’s fun to speculate about the Apple Car, the Apple Van, or the Apple Television. But that’s all it is — fun!