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Newsletter Issue #843

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

What’s the price of freedom? Well, recent iPhones and high-end Android handsets are encrypted, meaning that somebody who gets ahold of one can’t just break in and take your data. It’s not the same as you see on a TV show, such as “CSI Cyber,” where the hackers employed by the government can break into such a device and get the critical information to stop or solve a crime within 43 minutes and 55 seconds (the usual length of an hour TV show minus the commercials).

Well, I suppose they can always just guess which passcode, of up to six figures, you’re using. That makes for a one-in-a-million chance of making the right choice.

As a result, the authorities aren’t happy, which is why two bills have already been introduced in widely separated state legislatures to prevent sale of such a device.

That formed one of the topics we discussed this weekend on The Tech Night Owl LIVE. The guests included commentator and talk show host Kirk McElhearn, also known as Macworld’s “iTunes Guy.” During this episode, he described a system in use in UK supermarkets — it’s not in the U.S. yet — where customers can use their own hand-held scanners to tally purchases. The discussion turned to the planned phaseout of the free version of iTunes Radio, the possibilities for a sales slowdown of Apple gear, and Apple’s excessive prices for Mac RAM and drive upgrades. Since only a few Macs can be upgraded by customers, this has become an annoying and sometimes expensive problem.

You also heard from Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. A major portion of the segment focused on bills introduced in both the California and New York legislatures that would ban the sale of encrypted smartphones that don’t have backdoors that would make it possible for governments to have access to the contents. Such tech companies as Apple and Google have come under fire by authorities, including FBI Director James Comey, for using industrial strength encryption. During the interview, Bryan explained why he feels this backdoor would also make encrypted smartphones vulnerable to hacking by criminals, hackers, and other governments.

His logic, which makes sense to me, is that a backdoor’s existence creates a potential vulnerability that others could exploit. While law enforcement has a legitimate need to get information to help them prevent and solve crimes, how much freedom are the people willing to give up? What is the risk to someone’s privacy? Some might say that, if you’re not doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter. But doesn’t that create the potential for abuse of power?

In any case, the chances that a bill introduced by any single obscure legislator will get to the floor — let alone be passed and signed by the chief executive — are in the order of slim to none.

On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: In the tradition of our fascinating episodes with Mike Clelland and Walter Bosley, we explore synchronicity even further with Dr. Kirby Surprise, author of “Synchronicity: The Art of Coincidence, Choice and Unlocking Your Mind.” Is synchronicity due to some external force, or is it an ability that we all possess? How does it impact the world in which we live, and our own lives? According to his bio, “Dr. Kirby Surprise received his doctorate in counseling psychology from the Institute for Integral Studies. He works in an advanced outpatient program for the State of California where he assesses, diagnoses, and treats clients with psychotic and delusional disorders.”

THE HEAD OF THE PROJECT THAT DOESN’T EXIST LEAVES

Officially, Apple is interested in cars. For now, however the only actual auto-related product is CarPlay, which essentially brings portions of your iPhone’s interface to the car’s infotainment system. What this means is that you’ll see a subset of your iPhone’s apps in the LCD display usually located in the center of the dashboard, plus tight integration with functions related to those apps.

The core features include, naturally, the phone plus such apps as Maps, Messages, Music, Podcasts and Audiobooks. A handful of other apps are available, with more being added. In order to access CarPlay, the usual practice has been to attach your iPhone via wire, although a wireless capability is being added.

Most of the major auto makers have announced plans to ultimately install CarPlay in their new vehicles. Many will also support Google’s competitor, Android Auto, so you aren’t locked into one company’s mobile platform or product line. Regardless, Apple boasts that over 100 car models will support CarPlay beginning with their 2016 and 2017 models. So where does that leave that alleged Apple Car?

Well, the claims, not confirmed by Apple of course, have it that there is a Project Titan, which is a plan to enter the car business in a big way with an electric model that would presumably compete with the Tesla, or perhaps cheaper models from the major auto makers. It may also, at some point in time, deliver self-driving capabilities. Or at least that’s the plan, allegedly.

Supposedly hundreds of engineers, many lured from other industry players, are working to make it so. One Steve Zadesky, once a designer for iPods and iPhones, was the alleged head of the car project. He is also a former engineer for Ford, which is, I presume, where he received his car cred.

Amid rumors that the project has hit roadblocks and encountered delays, Zadesky is out. The only explanation is “personal reasons,” according to a Wall Street Journal report, but that may be a code phrase for being fired for failing to make significant progress.

How much progress? Well, it could take several years from initial design to execution. During that time, one would expect Apple’s design team would build and test prototype vehicles. All of it would be kept a secret as much as possible, but there is a point where the truth will be out there, simply because new cars must be submitted for regulatory approval before they can be offered for sale.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation will be tougher when and if an Apple Car comes to market, say in 2019, 2020, or later. One key reason is that the Volkswagen diesel emission scandal, or DieselGate, revealed the shortcomings in existing testing methodology. While over 500,000 vehicles are impacted in the U.S., the number is over 11 million worldwide. In Europe, the car makers have pretty much set the rules for testing their vehicles, and that is apt to change in light of VW’s abuse of the system.

So you might expect that Apple’s car entry will be revealed months before it can be offered for sale. While a presumed electric car wouldn’t have an emissions problem, all sorts of safety-related systems would have to be tested and shown to work. Crash tests would be conducted and, ultimately, published. Apple would have to meet the standards established by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets motor vehicle safety standards, plus standards bodies in every country in which the vehicle will be sold.

Even then, car makers that have been around for many decades often run into trouble and have to issue recalls. Don’t forget that ignition switch problem that GM confronted because loads of executives looked the other way. It resulted in crashes, injuries and even deaths, and hundreds of millions of dollars in claims are being paid out to victims as a result.

In short, you can expect that an Apple Car would get tougher scrutiny than current models as a result of the regulatory climate, and the truth will be out there. So you can expect that Apple would probably be forced to hold a special event to show off the vehicle long before you can buy one.

Until then, there will be rumors. There will be personnel changes, and online profiles in Face-book and LinkedIn may ultimately reveal who has joined Apple and, perhaps, who is leaving.

Some published reports even indicate that Apple might not even go it alone, which is rather different from their usual approach. If that’s the case, and they sign up with an existing partner, such as BMW or Daimler-Benz, that will create even more outlets for facts to leak. While Apple would strive for secrecy, and want their partner to keep the existence of this new project under wraps, that goal may be quite difficult to achieve. It’s not that Apple could ditch a partner with whom they’ve made a multi-billion dollar commitment because some executive talked out of turn.

At the very least, it would be reported, perhaps through the usual “informed sources,” that Apple had teamed up with a major car maker on a top secret project. The partnership may be limited to manufacturing the car rather than anything involving its design. Don’t forget that Tesla’s factory wasn’t built from scratch. Located in Fremont, CA, it was once known as New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMM), the result of a failed joint project between GM and Toyota.

At the beginning, Tesla partnered with Toyota to develop the new electric car. That deal resulted in the acquisition of the NUMM plant in 2010. So, contrary to what you think, Tesla didn’t go it alone, at least not at first.

However, the stories of a change in the leadership of Project Titan do not demonstrate whether an Apple Car will ever come to pass. I suppose it’s also possible that Apple might be building prototypes with which to test future versions of CarPlay, and expand the reach into more automotive systems. At most, it may be nothing more than an exploratory venture to test the feasibility of actually designing and manufacturing a car.

Apple certainly has the money to test new product concepts. At one time, they were rumored to be designing a smart TV set, but that appears to have gone by the wayside. Entering the car business may seem a natural evolution of CarPlay, which began as a move to install Siri in your car’s infotainment system. If it can happen, Apple would be in an excellent position not just to build a compelling motor vehicle that would change the industry almost overnight. They could also change the “Persian Bazaar” system of buying and financing. Tesla has made great strides in that direction, but leave it to Apple to tear it apart completely.

Indeed, those who are skeptical of Apple’s ability to build anything are whistling in the dark. And if Apple can manage to build a car that is actually affordable by normal working people — something Tesla won’t be able to do for another year or so — that would be the icing on the cake.

That is, if it truly comes to pass.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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