The wheels of change

Does Ap­ple staff ac­quired from Tesla and mys­te­ri­ous vans seen in Cal­i­for­nia mean the next big thing from Cu­per­tino will be a driver­less car?

Mac Format - - CONTENTS - Words: Alex Blake Il­lus­tra­tions: Mag­ic­torch, Paul Blach­ford

Things cer­tainly move fast in the world of Ap­ple ru­mours.

When the first mur­mur­ings sur­faced in early Fe­bru­ary that Ap­ple was se­cretly work­ing on new au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy, many com­men­ta­tors quickly dis­missed it as some sort of unan­nounced CarPlay in­no­va­tion, an im­prove­ment of Ap­ple Maps or bat­tery life re­search.

Then news emerged of Ap­ple poach­ing Tesla em­ploy­ees by the buck­et­load – Tesla em­ploy­ees spe­cial­is­ing in fields like me­chan­ics and man­u­fac­tur­ing, specif­i­cally. Mys­te­ri­ous Ap­ple vans loaded with cam­eras started ap­pear­ing on the streets of Cal­i­for­nia, New York and Hawaii. Ini­tial cau­tious scep­ti­cism be­gan turn­ing into fevered ex­cite­ment – surely Ap­ple couldn’t re­ally be work­ing on a car... could it?

Putting the brakes on ex­pec­ta­tions

Ap­ple gen­er­ates hype like no other com­pany on Earth. A com­bi­na­tion of bril­liant mar­ket­ing, a vice-like grip on leaked in­for­ma­tion and down­right awe­some prod­ucts mean that the slight­est hint of a new Ap­ple gad­get seems to kick­start the whole world into a flurry of breath­less spec­u­la­tion and sweaty palms.

But an Ap­ple Car? Mak­ing a car is very, very dif­fer­ent to mak­ing phones and com­put­ers, and the sheer lo­gis­tics of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process raise ques­tions about whether the tech be­he­moth re­ally is dip­ping its toes into car-mak­ing. Cars tend to stay on the roads for years be­fore be­ing re­placed; Ap­ple, by con­trast, re­li­giously re­leases new prod­ucts and new ver­sions of its tech ev­ery year, and it would re­quire a clear break in phi­los­o­phy if it’s to take on the car in­dus­try at its own game.

There are also no­tice­ably small mar­gins when it comes to build­ing cars, which could be an un­pleas­ant shock to a com­pany known for its record prof­its. Of course, the counter ar­gu­ment is that a firm fresh off the back of the most prof­itable quar­ter in his­tory has more than enough spare cash ly­ing around.

And the crit­ics have cer­tainly been wrong be­fore, sim­i­larly dis­miss­ing Ap­ple’s for­ays into the phone in­dus­try as naïve tin­ker­ing. Could they be wrong again?

Does it make sense?

It cer­tainly does. Both Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have es­poused their de­sire to shake up the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. Ap­ple dis­rupts pretty much ev­ery mar­ket it en­ters, and an Ap­ple Car could help cre­ate the ul­ti­mate Ap­ple ecosys­tem – and en­able the com­pany to spend some of that $178bn cash pile it’s sit­ting on.

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Nieuwen­huis of the Cen­tre for Au­to­mo­tive In­dus­try Re­search in Cardiff, the idea of Ap­ple build­ing a car is be­liev­able. “The car has steadily been mov­ing from a me­chan­i­cal to an elec­tric de­vice”, he says. “In fact, the only truly me­chan­i­cal bit left is the en­gine, so with Ap­ple’s ex­per­tise in bundling both soft­ware and hard­ware you can see the logic.”

Matthew Sparkes, Deputy Head of Tech­nol­ogy at The Tele­graph, is even more forthright: “With the gar­gan­tuan pile of cash Ap­ple is sit­ting on, the re­lent­less pres­sure to in­no­vate and the as­ton­ish­ing progress of au­to­mo­tive dis­rup­tors Tesla, I’d say it’s al­most cer­tain Cu­per­tino is work­ing on R&D projects around cars.”

Were those Ap­ple vans con­duct­ing a map­ping project akin to Google’s Street View? Not ac­cord­ing to tech an­a­lyst Rob En­derle, who was quoted by San Fran­cisco’s CBS Lo­cal as say­ing the van had “too many cam­eras” to be used for map­ping, and that the way they were ar­ranged – point­ing at all four cor­ners of the ve­hi­cle – wasn’t suit­able for that pur­pose.

He told MacFor­mat that Ap­ple doesn’t need their own fully-fledged ve­hi­cle to test out in-car en­ter­tain­ment like CarPlay, sug­gest­ing a car was in­deed in the works.

And let’s not for­get that at its Spring For­ward event in March 2015, Ap­ple an­nounced a new Mac­Book packed full of bril­liantly de­signed tiered bat­ter­ies. That sort of in­no­va­tion could al­low Ap­ple to fit more bat­ter­ies in a car’s limited space, re­sult­ing in longer charges. Al­ter­na­tively, it could al­low a more com­pact bat­tery ar­range­ment, leav­ing more room for other tech or pro­duc­ing a lighter, more re­spon­sive ve­hi­cle.

That type of think­ing gained a sig­nif­i­cant boost when it was re­ported in mid Fe­bru­ary 2015 that Ap­ple was be­ing sued by A123 Sys­tems, a car bat­tery man­u­fac­turer, for poach­ing its em­ploy­ees to work on a large-

scale ve­hi­cle bat­tery di­vi­sion. With that one an­nounce­ment, the Ap­ple Car seemed to be­come a whole lot more real.

What might an Ap­ple Car do?

There’s no doubt­ing an Ap­ple Car would be a thing of beauty, a luxury ve­hi­cle pro­duced with the kind of qual­ity Cu­per­tino is known for. But what kind of fea­tures can we ex­pect?

It would be a fan­tas­tic chance for Ap­ple to push a load of its other ser­vices your way. You would nav­i­gate us­ing Ap­ple Maps, Siri tak­ing voice com­mands. In-car en­ter­tain­ment would be han­dled by iTunes. By the time such a ve­hi­cle would be re­leased – a min­i­mum of five years from now – per­haps you would even be able to pay for fuel us­ing Ap­ple Pay.

What seems al­most cer­tain to all con­cerned is that an Ap­ple Car would be elec­tric. The com­pany’s green cre­den­tials are well known, with Tim Cook’s aim be­ing to leave the planet ‘a bet­ter place than we found it’. He grabbed the head­lines again at Ap­ple’s an­nual share­holder meet­ing in March 2014 when he re­port­edly told share­hold­ers to ‘get out of this stock’ if they op­posed the Cu­per­tino gi­ant’s en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies.

That all places Ap­ple far closer to Tesla than Tata – par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent given the num­ber of Tesla em­ploy­ees switch­ing al­le­giance. But what of the other big ru­mour that’s been con­sis­tently at­tached to the al­leged Ap­ple auto – that it will be com­pletely driver­less?

It’s cer­tainly a com­pelling idea and aligns to Tim Cook’s sen­ti­ments. Road fa­tal­i­ties would tum­ble, jour­ney times would be slashed, while park­ing has­sles would be a thing of the past.

Sparkes was in a con­fi­dent mood when he told us that “It would cer­tainly be driver­less, as the whole mo­tor­ing sec­tor is also work­ing on tak­ing the weak link – hu­mans – out of the loop”. It’s a mat­ter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

Jane Nak­a­gawa, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Por­tia Con­sult­ing, agrees, telling TechRadar.com that a driver­less Ap­ple Car could boost busi­ness by pro­vid­ing a fleet of con­nected, au­to­mated de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles. Taxi ser­vices could be­come sim­i­larly self-driv­ing, en­hanc­ing con­ve­nience, com­fort and safety in one fell swoop.

Nieuwen­huis is less sure given the com­plex­ity in­volved and Ap­ple’s lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in the field. “Macs are not ex­actly driver­less,” he points out, “but they could de­velop many of the tech­nolo­gies needed to move in the driver­less di­rec­tion.” Given the com­pany’s track record of do­ing the so-called

im­pos­si­ble – and the po­ten­tial prof­its for Ap­ple – it’s dif­fi­cult to com­pletely write off the self-driv­ing el­e­ment.

No or­di­nary car

It doesn’t take a ge­nius to work out that an Ap­ple Car would be loaded to the hilt with all man­ner of stunning gad­gets. As En­derle puts it, “it would ba­si­cally be an iPod on wheels.”

Sparkes agrees: “You could imag­ine it be­ing im­mac­u­lately de­signed, with fan­tas­tic in-car en­ter­tain­ment: great screens, qual­ity au­dio. Its Maps ser­vice would han­dle sat-nav du­ties.”

A car rep­re­sents an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity that Ap­ple would surely find hard to turn down – a com­plete, self-con­tained ecosys­tem where ev­ery el­e­ment, ev­ery user need, could be catered to by Ap­ple. The com­pany can’t (yet) pro­vide ev­ery so­lu­tion for your home life, but a car? Well, that would be a very dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion in­deed.

As Nieuwen­huis sug­gests, the oft-mooted com­par­isons with Tesla are closer than ever when it comes to in-car tech. “Look at how the Tesla works – its user in­ter­face is like a large iPad, and its soft­ware can be up­dated and up­graded while it is charg­ing overnight. It is the sort of thing that you do not cur­rently find in other cars where Ap­ple’s first moves are likely to be.”

Is Ap­ple chang­ing its fo­cus?

De­spite all the cyn­i­cal warn­ings of the var­i­ous naysay­ers, the car of the fu­ture will likely suit Ap­ple down to the ground.

But the ob­vi­ous ques­tion to ask from all this is whether Ap­ple is chang­ing from a com­puter com­pany into some­thing else en­tirely – a com­pany look­ing to ex­pand its reach and its ethos into un­charted wa­ters.

The most con­spic­u­ous clue lies in Ap­ple’s pre­sen­ta­tion of its Ap­ple Watch. From hir­ing fash­ion­istas like Burberry’s Ch­ester Chip­per­field and Paul Den­eve of Yves St. Lau­rent to the de­ci­sion to mar­ket a luxury gold model sell­ing for up­wards of $10,000, the in­escapable im­pli­ca­tion is that Ap­ple is start­ing to see it­self as not just a tech­nol­ogy gi­ant, but a cer­ti­fied life­style brand.

Ap­ple Watch is a clear ex­pres­sion of this new­found iden­tity, and all clues point to that be­ing the case for the prospec­tive Car too. Given Ap­ple’s pen­chant for eye-wa­ter­ing de­sign closely matched by some eye-wa­ter­ing prices, there’s lit­tle doubt any such ve­hi­cle would be a luxury item, much more a pres­ti­gious sta­tus sym­bol than a func­tional set of wheels for bud­get buy­ers.

The Ap­ple brand holds a cer­tain ca­chet, an air of el­e­gance and style hith­erto un­matched by its ri­vals in the geeky world of gad­gets and giz­mos. An Ap­ple Car would trans­fer that to an en­tirely new realm for the dar­ling of Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s a dif­fer­ent ball game, but as Ap­ple has shown with its con­fi­dent move into the heady world of high fash­ion, that’s un­likely to put off Tim Cook and friends.

If an Ap­ple Car does be­come a re­al­ity, it will likely fea­ture the kind of sleek de­sign Ap­ple is known and loved for – a far cry from the teched-up vans spot­ted on the streets of Amer­ica.

The most ob­vi­ous point of com­par­i­son for an Ap­ple Car – and po­ten­tial­liy its big­gest ri­val – is Tesla, an­other Sil­i­con Val­ley tech firm mak­ing waves in the auto in­dus­try.

The Honda Jazz has shown that hy­brid cars can suc­ceed in the mass con­sumer mar­ket. Might Ap­ple fol­low suit with an elec­tric car of its own?

Ap­ple’s for­ays into the world of fash­ion sug­gest it no longer sees it­self purely as a tech com­pany, but as a life­style brand as well.

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