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Does the World Need an Apple Car?

When the iPod appeared in 2001, it originally came across as just an indulgence from Apple. All right, so you had 5,000 songs in your pocket It was easy to sync your music with iTunes via a FireWire connection, and the download speed was way faster than competing digital music players.

But the iPod caught a wave and sales soared, especially when iTunes was ported to Windows. No competing player came close, and even Microsoft had a notable failure when it tried to gain traction with the Zune. But they also fell in love with the Zune’s tiled interfaces, since it soon infected Windows operating systems.

In 2007, the iPhone must, at first, have seemed a curiosity. Certainly Apple had modest expectations, and other industry players said the iPhone had no chance for success. Steve Jobs said he’d be happy if sales exceeded one percent of the global market by the end of 2008. It did that and more, overhauling the smartphone market. Instead of being an awkward plaything for busy executives, typified by the BlackBerry, anyone could master an iPhone and the concept was quickly “borrowed” by other companies.

Did the world really need an iPhone? The answer was unequivocally yes.

The iPad may be another story. It did well enough at the start, but sales have flagged. Whether the iPod Pro and the new multitasking features in iOS 9 will turn things around is anyone’s guess. I suppose Apple has the marketing information to have a good handle on the situation. The rest of us will just have to watch and see. Perhaps the start of a decent upgrade cycle will move things along.

I’ll withhold comment on the potential for Apple Watch. I suppose we’ll have a better picture later this month when Apple releases its quarterly financials. Or perhaps not, since sales of Apple’s smartwatch are buried in the “Other” category, and it’ll be a guessing game to separate the figures into different products and services. If there’s a positive story to tell, though, perhaps Apple will reveal something.

That takes us to the next great product from Apple. We have no idea what it is, but there have been ongoing reports of a Project Titan, which is devoted to developing an Apple Car for release perhaps in 2019 or 2020. Or maybe later.

The project supposedly includes hundreds of employees, recruited or poached, from a number of car makers that allegedly include Tesla. In fact, Tesla CEO Elon Musk made some acid comments about the employees who went to Apple, and about Apple, before walking them back. Clearly he felt the impact.

Of course, Apple hasn’t actually confirmed what this project is all about, or even if it exists. We just hear the rumors, but I wouldn’t dispute the fact that it is automative related. Is it just something to improve CarPlay or some future development to enhance existing motor vehicles, or actually build a car?

What sort of car?

Would it be similar in focus to the Tesla, an all-electric car with some pretensions to self-driving? Tesla has already rolled out Autopilot, which automates some driving functions that include steering within a lane, changing lanes and maintaining a safe driving speed. The software, along with a collection of sensors being outfitted to new vehicles, is also said to be self-learning, which means it gets better over time.

It’s not quite the same as sitting in your car and saying “take me to the nearest Walmart,” and letting it do its thing. It’s mainly designed for highway driving, where it builds upon a sophisticated cruise and lane control scheme. Still, that’s a lot of progress, and it’s only a matter of time — if allowed by governments — before a full automatic driving capability appears.

But that’s Tesla. Does Apple plan to rain on Tesla’s parade, or take auto technology into new directions? Bear in mind, the Tesla is probably the highest rated vehicle on the planet. Consumer Reports recently gave one a rating of 103 out of a possible 100, because they couldn’t confine the scores to their usual standards. Despite those ratings, Consumer Reports no longer recommends Tesla because reliability surveys have revealed a raft of problems. Clearly Tesla has some work to do to reassure customers that they build cars you can depend on.

Now reports about Apple’s possible entrance into the auto business have been greeted by the usual skepticism from the industry. Where does Apple get the temerity to build a car? They said the same thing about the iPhone and the iPad, by the way. Even the Mac was greeted with skepticism when it arrived in 1984, and it was regularly pronounced dead for at least two decades after that.

With over $200 billion cash available, I have little doubt Apple can do anything they want to do in the car industry. Every element of the industry, from sales and service, to the electronics in motor vehicles, is in need of improvement. So it’s not just a fancy electric car, but making the buying and service experience fast and friendly that’ll count.

Certainly another auto maker would be welcome. Existing car companies are notorious for pulling stunts that result in unsafe vehicles, or bypass emissions requirements. The Volkswagen scandal is not the only episode of cheating to pass emissions tests. Indeed, as governments consider getting more directly involved in testing vehicles, it may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Apple’s number one competitor would be Tesla, and if they go down this route, would they follow the same path with an expensive luxury vehicle, or deliver something reasonably affordable for the “rest of us”? But I wouldn’t presume to guess what they’d regard as “affordable.” The average transaction price for a new car these days is roughly $32,086, if that’s what you call affordable.

Does the world need an Apple Car? Maybe not until one actually goes on sale. That appears to be how things work with Apple.