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Apple Car Talk Starts Making Sense

The Apple car rumor gained some legs this week with a Wall Street Journal report that brings some interesting new insight.

Though a bit shy on verifiable details — it cites unnamed people familiar with Apple’s plans and vaguely refers to people inside Apple — the report suggests the company will triple its current 600-person team to 1,800 people as it ramps up its car development effort, code-named “Titan.”

Previous Apple car reports have linked Apple’s hiring of automobile experts to Titan, with some assuming that Apple even poached some employees from Tesla.

Earlier rumors also made the assumption that Apple was developing a self-driving car, but the Journal’s latest story indicates the first Apple car won’t be fully autonomous.

It also establishes a timeline, sort of. The target ship date is 2019 — though there is some doubt about whether that’s accurate.

All along, it’s been expected that the rumored Apple car will be electric.

So, Is Apple Building a Car or Not?

Apple has not confirmed any plans to build a car, but the evidence has been mounting.

Apple execs recently met with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to discuss the state’s regulations for autonomous vehicles, according to documents obtained by The Guardian.

Emails obtained by the Journal not only corroborate that report, but also reveal Apple’s interest in booking a time slot to use GoMentum Station, which is training space for next-generation autonomous vehicle sensors and driving systems.

From what I’ve seen, this represents the latest smoking gun evidence that Apple is serious about building a car.

However, working on a car is a long way from actually delivering a car. Case in point? The long-rumored next-generation Apple TV.

For years, rumors suggested that Apple was building its own HDTV-like Apple TV — and many people believed them. After years of buzz, that’s not what Apple announced to the world this month. Instead, it presented a refinement of its existing Apple TV set-top box, making it more powerful and adding an app store.

So might we see an Apple car by 2019? That’s hard to imagine — especially if Apple obsesses over all the details as it tends to do when building its products.

Isn’t Building a Car Too Difficult for Apple?

Cars have a lot of moving parts and a lot of regulations, and if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed about complicated industries, the key players tend to exhibit a bit of hubris over how hard their jobs are.

College engineering students build interesting cars and car components all the time, and they tend to lack resources like money, space, tools and a human workforce. I would argue that — especially for a company with Apple’s billions of dollars worth of resources — building a car isn’t that hard at all.

Getting it right, on the other hand, and making a meaningful leap forward — well, that will be hard.

Yet Tesla has done it. Tesla not only produced an interesting electric vehicle, but also created something even harder — Tesla delivered the Model S. I don’t care who you are, the Model S is a damn fine-looking automobile. I’m a pickup kind of guy myself, but the Model S exudes an interesting blend of sexy-but-refined aggression. My point is, Tesla has created its own niche while also creating a desirable product.

So I wouldn’t count Apple out of the car game any time soon. In fact, Apple has an extraordinarily complicated and efficient supply chain that criss-crosses the globe. Regulatory compliance and logistics? Apple is a company that has the discipline to handle those issues.

What about not the rumor of not producing a game-changing fully autonomous car? Why back off on that vision and compete with so many other manufacturers, especially while Google is working so hard on its own self-driving car?

I don’t think Apple has a need to be first. Being first is a more of a bonus than an end goal. While Apple has paved the road for plenty of consumer electronics segments, it clearly has trailed the work of others. Case in point? The new iPad Pro. The keyboard cover and form factor aren’t new, nor is the notion of a stylus. However, the iPad Pro most definitely will be more profitable than every other competitive product in its segment.

Apple’s playbook seems to be to produce a product that’s pretty damn good and that’s also profitable. Then it refines it as consumers get used to the segment, making it better and better.

A natural progression with a car would be to get the batteries and the battery ecosystem right — not to mention consumer desire. That’s step one. Step two is to add in driving-assistance features, heading toward self-driving vehicles. If Google does all the work to get consumers and governments to accept self-driving cars… I think Apple would be fine with that, swooping in later to scoop up most of the profit.

Which Brings Us to Why Build a Car?

When I think about Apple building a car, I’ve got to wonder why. Why would Apple step past its consumer electronics sweet spot, investing billions of dollars over many years before coming close to a return on the investment?

I believe that Apple CEO Tim Cook might be the kind of guy who wants to develop something meaningful for the world — more than entertainment or fashion devices. I’ve never met him, of course, but everything I’ve read about him or heard him say in interviews leads me to believe that he cares about producing meaningful products. So, I don’t find an Apple car a leap at all.

On the contrary, it’s almost inevitable, because a car is a discrete product that people buy not only with practicality in mind, but also with emotion — areas Apple excels in. Plus, the car is at once loved and hated. It’s a necessary evil that contributes to environmental chaos — and where there are passions and problems, there also can be profits.

Cars represent a product that Apple can build that would be in line with its core skills and yet also effect meaningful change within five or 10 years. If you think ahead to the sky and beyond, a car is just another step to critical new products and Apple ecosystems.

So like I said, I don’t think an Apple car is a leap at all.

Chris Maxcer

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at or check out @WickedCoolBite on Twitter.

1 Comment

  • I agree with your assessment and logic. I keep hearing the "other side" argument and can see it, but Apple does have a history of marching to a different drummer. And while I doubt very much that I would ever buy an Apple car (or Google car or Tesla) I AM far from the target buyer.

    And one of the coolest parts of Apple making an "iCar" (if we can name it!!) is to listen to the Apple haters while they come up with yet another snide comment about the Apple lovers!

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