The Apple Car May Never Be

October 18th, 2016

Apple’s participation in the auto business has been on a fairly basic level. With CarPlay, you can “play” or stream some apps from your iPhone onto your vehicle’s infotainment system. While you can keep tabs on email and other messages, it works best with mapping and music. Unfortunately, it’s also somewhat awkward to use, because you have to connect your iPhone to the auto’s USB port with a lightning cable.

I’ve had limited opportunities to use CarPlay, since a couple of friends have new cars that support the system. But to be fair to everyone, car makers generally also support Google’s competitor, Android Auto, which is meant to offer similar features.

Eventually, you’ll be free of the need for cabling. Beginning in 2017, the BMW 5 Series sedan will support the wireless version of CarPlay. But it’s an expensive alternative, since the 5 Series usually costs upwards of $50,000 unless your dealer is offering a smokin’ deal.

Other than wireless, where is Apple going with its auto initiative? Well, not so long ago, rumors arose about the rise of Project Titan, said to be the code name for an Apple R&D program that would reportedly result in the production of what the media referred to as an Apple Car.

But this is something Apple has never confirmed, even if the company admits to being interested in the automobile business. But remember, Apple expressed interest in the living room and the best they have offered, so far, is a revamped Apple TV. That’s not even a half step.

Now after months of reports of hirings, people are reportedly being let go. The reputed project leader, Steve Zadesky, reportedly left Apple earlier this year admit reports of a lack of focus. Former Apple hardware executive Mike Mansfield took over, and there are published reports of further bloodletting, mostly people who are skilled at engineering the components of a motor vehicle in place of people who are focused on software development. So Dan Dodge, the creator of BlackBerry’s QNX car platform, is said to have taken on a greater role at Project Titan.

So what’s Apple really up to?

Understand that Apple routinely engages in different R&D projects, but few of them result in an actual retail ducts. Take several years of reports that Apple was developing a smart TV set. The rumors were fueled by comments by Steve Jobs, in Water Isaacson’s authorized biography, that he had devised a magical TV interface, the best ever. Maybe so, or maybe he was just saying things to freak out the rest of the industry. At one time even Lenovo, known primarily as a PC maker, was said to be building a TV set for the Asian market, but it never saw the light of day.

In the end, there is no Apple smart TV. Perhaps some prototypes were sampled, but at the end of the day Apple decided there was no place for it in a highly saturated marketplace. It’s not the same as digital music players, smartphones and tablets, and even smartwatches, where there were untapped markets that Apple found ways to exploit.

But the same may be true for the auto industry. There are loads of players, many of whom are busy developing electric cars and self-driving systems. There is already an active and potentially successful car company that some consider to function in the spirit of Apple, and that’s Tesla Motors. Yes, Tesla isn’t making money yet, and hasn’t demonstrated it can build hundreds of thousands of affordable electric cars, the forthcoming Model 3, each year. But recent reports indicate that production problems with existing models have been largely overcome, so it’s too early to write them off.

Other car companies are doing their part. GM Chevrolet Bolt, a head-on competitor to the upcoming Tesla midsize vehicle, promises a driving range of over 200 miles and a price similar to the Model 3.

Stung by problems meeting U.S. emissions requirements with its diesel engines, Volkswagen is going electric too, having already demonstrated a potential future design. So your next Passat may well be powered by a battery rather than a gas engine, or perhaps it’ll be a lineup of all-new models with different names.

Into this crowded marketplace, there may be no place for an Apple entry. Tesla has already assumed some of the qualifies of Apple, such as having its own factory dealer network to avoid the Persian bazaar atmosphere of the typical dealership. And I’m sure most of you have stories about dealing with car stores at different levels, and being treated like dirt even when you’re attempting to make what may be one of the most expensive purchases in your entire life. How can that be a good thing?

So where does Apple go if there’s no Apple Car? If it can’t conquer Detroit, perhaps there will be something that I call Apple Drive, an autonomous driving system that  would be licensed to auto manufacturers. I suppose the main question is how it would be integrated with existing onboard systems on a car, unless devised a set of minimum requirements for safety, braking and handling that could be abstracted in the new Apple system.

According to the latest Project Titan scuttlebutt, Apple will decide by late 2017 what direction to take, or even if the project is destined to continue.

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