Few people know the actual parameters of the project. Some have
suggested Apple wants to build a better self-driving car than
Google or a better electric car than Tesla Motors. Reports last
week said Apple wants to begin production of an EV as early as
2020. A lawsuit by battery maker A123 Systems alleging that Apple
poached its top engineers suggests that Apple is working on
acquiring advanced battery technology.
Others think Apple wants to expand its electronics empire by
designing an upgradeable in-car interface that wouldn't become
obsolete as rapidly as the infotainment systems in most of today's
But the code-name of the project itself suggests that Apple's
ambitions are broader than that, even if they don't include selling
an Apple-branded vehicle.
Of course, Apple has the resources to do just about anything,
including taking a huge gamble on a potential fiasco. It is the
wealthiest corporation in the world, with $178 billion in cash and
a market capitalization triple that of Toyota's. It also has a
knack for dethroning industry giants, Nokia and BlackBerry among them.
But there's little reason to believe that Apple would want to
join a marketplace that already exists -- without the opportunity
to revolutionize it.
"Apple would never lock themselves into three-to-five-year
product life cycles," said Steve Wilhite, who was VP-global
marketing for Apple from 1999 to 2000 between marketing stints at
Volkswagen, Nissan and Hyundai. "Their technology
and imagination are just too fertile to do that. They'd have to
find the right automotive leader to partner with them and
fundamentally change their development model. And I don't know who
that would be."
He added: "The idea of them building a complete Apple-branded
car is pretty far-fetched."
Bob Lutz, the former product development chief at General Motors, says
the likely course for Apple is to develop a modular, upgradeable
in-car operating system or work on autonomous driving technology as
a long-range research-and-development play. An exercise like that
would help refine any number of existing Apple endeavors, from
image recognition to wireless communications to human-machine
"Apple can enter the automobile business in multiple ways," Mr.
Lutz said in an interview. "Do I think they are going to work with
vehicles? Yes. Do I think they intend to produce entire cars?
So what does Apple bring to the table?
Tony Posawatz, who was line director for the Chevrolet Volt and
now sits on the board of the connected-car services company Inrix
Inc., said Apple -- a master of integrating hardware, software and
user interfaces -- could prosper by improving on today's mostly
"clumsy" in-car computers.
"If I were at Apple and I were serious, I'd do a learning
exercise that's pretty modest, maybe a smaller-scale electric
vehicle," said Mr. Posawatz, who was briefly CEO of Fisker
Automotive before the EV startup filed for bankruptcy in late 2013.
"You don't want to tackle all of the challenges at once."
Apple has other valuable strengths, said Henrik Fisker, the
veteran BMW and Aston Martin designer who was chairman of Fisker
Automotive before its bankruptcy. Among them are a brand that
captivates young people more than perhaps any auto brand and a
design team led by Jonathan Ive, whom Mr. Fisker described as
"probably the best product designer in the world."
"He has a global view," Mr. Fisker said. "What he creates with
his team appeals to people globally and is seen as beautiful
globally. That, of course, is exactly what you need to do in the
auto industry nowadays."
Mr. Fisker said that if Apple built a car, one challenge would
be designing an object that is true to Apple's aesthetic but still
suitable for real-world use.
Unlike, say, iPods, cars must look attractive in motion or
standing still and in all sorts of weather and lighting.
"If you can get people who aren't interested in cars to actually
turn around and look at a car, you're really successful," Mr.
That sums up Apple's challenge and opportunity.
To create the seamless iOS experience Mr. Cook called for, it's
not enough for Apple to be present in the car.
It must know cars well enough to build one from scratch. That
means integrating hardware, software, mechanical components and the
user interface into an Apple-conceived whole.
To understand the distinction, turn the clock back to the 2005
debut of the Motorola ROKR E1, the first cellphone with Apple's
iTunes music program built into it.
Motorola was the establishment in cellphones and mobile audio.
But the phone was a study in compromises, with neither the elegance
of Apple's iPod interfaces nor the sleekness of Motorola's popular
RAZR phones. Its capacity was a paltry 100 songs. Apple's then-CEO
Steve Jobs dubbed it the "iTunes Phone" and damned it with faint
Before long, Apple was in the cellphone business on its own.
iPhone as anchor
The iPhone has been the foundation of Apple's profits and prestige
ever since. Perhaps more significant than its robust sales was the
platform it created for thousands of other companies to innovate
This is the potential payoff of an Apple concept vehicle. For
Google, building a prototype car has not only been a way to figure
out how all the pieces fit together but also helped Google
crystallize its vision of a crash-free transportation system.
Apple similarly has much to learn about automobiles before it
can hope to revolutionize them. But if it succeeds, Apple also has
a chance to claim a new frontier and extend its vision for a
"seamless kind of life" to every facet of the automobile.
And considering how well Apple has harnessed the supply chain to
revolutionize the smartphone, Mr. Lutz said, "they could wind up
doing a spectacularly good job."
--Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News