Yes, There is an Apple Car; No There Isn’t!

September 27th, 2016

I read two articles before writing this column. One suggested Apple had scaled down Project Titan to focus on CarPlay on steroids, more or less. Another considered recent developments to suggest that an Apple Car was still on track. So what do Apple executives think when they read two articles from two relatively well-known publications drawing opposite conclusions? Does Tim Cook have a bemused smile on his face as he watches people fall over themselves attempting to figure out what’s really going on?

Understand all this is mostly happening in a vacuum, without official statements from Apple. But the report that former hardware executive Bob Mansfield took control of the project probably wasn’t made up of whole cloth. It’s very possible that story was quietly fed by Apple to keep up the chatter.

As to the rumors of a purchase of McLaren Automatic, who builds luxury sports cars, maybe it’s all about acquiring technology rather than the entire company.

In fact, I’ve long felt that Apple strategically drops hints and tips on background to specifically selected members of the media. They dutifully repeat the news without directly quoting Apple, usually without critical comment, and whatever Apple is doing continues to make the news.

So the very latest scuttlebutt explains alleged firings at Project Titan as due to the fact that Apple has sharpened the focus. The prospect of building a car and making a difference in a crowded, saturated market is not in the cards. Whatever Apple might do may have already been accomplished by other car makers. Certainly Tesla Motors’ efforts to sell direct addresses the often irritating process of negotiating with traditional car dealers in a tradionalliy Persian bazaar atmosphere. Indeed, while there may be exceptions, I have been buying cars for decades. Despite occasional promises that the process will be expedited, I seldom spend less than two hours at the dealership dealing with the salesperson, the general manager and the finance person. Each leg of the journey manages a profit center, and even if you say, “I just want the car without add-ons,” the process will be long and annoying.

Yes, I’m aware some dealers have a flat-price scheme, where you pay the sticker price. But you still have to cope with the other legs of the purchase.

But I suspect Apple may have reached the same conclusion they may have reached when considering a smart television set. Those markets are accounted for, so may as well deal with the add-ons or accessories. So there’s Apple TV. While it may take over an increasing amount of programming control, you’re still watching shows on a product from such companies as LG, Samsung and VIZIO.

With cars, there are dozens and dozens of companies, many of whom are working on electric cars. There’s enough know-how and dedication to deliver a vehicle that will be reasonably affordable, battery powered, and deliver enough range to avoid the anxiety of running out of power. Of course the situation won’t get a lot better until there’s a network of charging stations, and quick-charging features so you don’t have to wait long to top off the battery.

That’s true even for Volkswagen, which is paying off billions of dollars in penalties because it tried to cheat the system with its diesel engines. In the new automotive world, diesel will be largely relegated to large trucks. So VW is devoting an increasing amount of its resources to develop electric cars.

So what is Apple working on? Well, CarPlay simply takes elements of an iPhone’s interface and presents it on your vehicle’s infotainment system. Yes, Android Auto does basically the same thing from Google’s standpoint, and many car makers have opted to support both. That way they do not risk alienating customers.

But w What if Apple is also working on a system to take over the entire car’s electronics, to manage self-driving? Is that the possible solution, or is there some intermediate step where CarPlay will just take on more infotainment functions?

I do not doubt that Apple can develop a fully functional autonomous driving system of one sort or another, with a user friendly setup and interface for which Apple is famous. But there are lots of questions, one of which involves compatibility with different makes and models. If a company licenses AppleDrive, or whatever the system is called, would there be restrictions on how the engine, brake and steering management systems are designed? Or will this be something that is readily adapted to a vehicle with minimal customization?

In other words, would it require an Apple reference platform of some sort for auto makers?

While Google is also working on a self-driving system, how it would be implemented is, as usual, a question mark. Google often engages in projects that have little practical value. Sure a self-driving system would be useful, but it would all depend on how it’s marketed to the auto industry and what changes have to be made to allow it to work in a production vehicle. Or will Google just build their own cars — or try to?

But whether it’s an AppleDrive reference platform or something from Google, does the industry have any incentive at all to go with either company? After all most or all car makers are busy devising their own systems, which would, of course, be compatible with their own engineering priorities. Why would they consider a third party?

So if an AppleDrive system is under development, is Apple contacting car makers quietly to see what their priorities might be?

Of course, none of this has been confirmed. All bets are off, but I’ve long tended to favor a self-driving system rather than the whole widget.

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