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The Latest Apple Car Story

When you hear rumors about possible future Apple products, sometimes the source can help determine credibility. Well, at least when a source is named. So you’ll see reports about a future product from such sources as DigiTimes, a tech publication from Taiwan, and you’ll also be correctly informed that they often get things wrong.

I suppose there is also good reason to suspect the accuracy of something that emerges from one rumor site or another without attribution, although, to be fair, at least some appear to be dedicated to providing good journalism. In other words, the rumors are vetted and rated for possible accuracy. It doesn’t stop them from publishing the rumors, but at least you might be able to apply the proper degree of skepticism.

In saying that, stories that Apple is working on a car of some sort have been around for a while, and they’ve become fairly consistent, other than, of course, some of those alleged butt ugly prototypes I’ve seen. It’s also reported that Apple has assigned hundreds of people to Project Titan, the code name for this endeavor.

Up till recently, Apple supposedly had settled on a 2020 date to introduce the Apple Car. But last week, published reports indicated the deadline had been moved back to 2021. That story appeared months after it was reported that the original head of Project Titan, Steve Zadesky, had departed for personal reasons. That may be so, except for other reports that Apple’s Chief Design Officer, Jonathan Ive, was unhappy with its progress, which might explain why a head had to roll.

But the latest scuttlebutt comes from a usually reliable source, the Wall Street Journal, and it claims that Apple has brought onboard a former hardware executive, Bob Mansfield, whose most recent assignment has been to serve as a sort of consultant, working on future products and reporting directly to Tim Cook. But in naming Mansfield to head Project Titan, you have to wonder the reasoning behind that decision. You see, when you look at Mansfield’s background, none of it appears to reflect experience in the automobile industry.

I suppose you could say the same about a recent Ford CEO, Alan Mulally, who came from Boeing, where he was CEO. But it’s still about transportation, though I grant there are considerable differences between building airplanes and building cars. On the other hand, Mansfield’s experience involves overseeing teams that build retail products, so maybe he was the right person to organize a car division and make it possible to actually build them.

Obviously, I wouldn’t care to guess at the actual reasoning behind this appointment, but organizational skills can account for a lot even if the executive isn’t skilled on the nuts and bolts of a specific product technology. With the right staffing, maybe it doesn’t matter. If true, obviously it doesn’t matter to Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive, which is why Mansfield is assuming such an important position. To them, he’s someone who gets things done.

I suppose it is also possible that this is a short-term assignment, designed to get the project moving towards production, after which Mansfield will gracefully retire and let a seasoned auto executive take over. Or maybe not. Even if this report is genuine, and there’s no reason to doubt it considering the source, that doesn’t tell us Apple’s ultimate plans for such a vehicle, nor does it set a deadline for placing this car into production.

Indeed, it doesn’t prove that Apple plans to build a car, but may only demonstrate Apple’s intense interest in exploring products that interact with cars. Certainly the company is large enough to take on an automobile project of some sort. There may even be enough room to innovate in the area in which the company is allegedly interested, electric cars. But to meet rapidly increasing fuel economy standards, most car companies are going to be looking into electric cars of some sort. With the failure of its efforts to mass produce cars with clean diesel engines in the U.S., as a result of that emissions scandal, even Volkswagen is going to spend billions to build electric cars.

So the larger question remains the same. If a number of auto makers are developing electric cars — and assuming Tesla overcomes its current production and quality problems — just what does Apple bring to the table? Other than refining the usually obtuse interface of an auto’s infotainment system, and CarPlay is only a beginning, where does Apple make a difference? Are they working on a new technology governing self-driving? A vehicle that eases the driving experience, for those who drive by themselves?

Obviously, those answers are won’t come for several years, and even if it’s real, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it postponed yet again. It’s always possible Apple will invest billions in R&D but ultimately come up empty. In 2016, it’s hard to predict that an Apple Car will ever arrive, or, if it does, what form it will take.