Why we might soon see the Apple iCar

Apple CEO Tim Cook
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If we didn’t already have enough of a reason to suspect that Apple has its sights on world domination, the Web has been buzzing with speculation of yet another industry takeover. Believe it or not, within the next five years we may just see the debut of the electric car developed by Apple.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the rumours surrounding Apple’s move into the auto business, claiming that vice president Steve Zadesky is thought to be heading the project, code-named “Titan.” It is said that up to 1000 new employees with automotive experience are being hired for the project, both internally and externally. While many of these rumours seem to be corroborated by mounting evidence, no one can say for sure exactly what Apple has up its wizard’s sleeve.

On Friday, we learned Apple plans to start production of an electric car by 2020.

The rumours began when a minivan equipped with cameras was spotted in the East Bay Area of San Francisco. Shortly after, the California DMV confirmed that the vehicle was leased to Apple. A further potential sighting of a similar camera-laden minivan in Brooklyn, which was uploaded to YouTube, has been raising a few eyebrows as well.

Initially it was speculated by CBS (among others) that these might be mapping vehicles, and that Apple was preparing to take on Google with its own street-view feature of its Maps software. Technology analyst Rob Enderle, however, suspects that the appearance of these minivans mean Apple is testing a self-driving car (though it should be noted that Enderle has the distinction of being one of the “10 wrongest Apple pundits” according to Macworld).

If an Apple car is really is going to roll off the production line — literally — then it shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the company’s track record for revolutionizing industries. Remember, the smartphone existed before the iPhone, but it was Apple that turned it into a user experience with a multi-touch interface in 2007. We have also seen how the iPod and iTunes upended the music industry, and how the tablet industry mimiced whatever the iPad rolled out.

Apple’s Auto Play

This won’t be the first time Apple has dabbled in the automotive industry, either. Car Play is a current Apple feature which allows drivers to plug their iPhones into their vehicles for a safer way to chat while driving.

The idea of the electric iCar is not without its sceptics, however. Dan Akerson, retired CEO of General Motors Co., thinks Apple should stay away from the business of car manufacturing. He told Bloomberg in a telephone interview, “I think somebody is kind of trying to cough up a hairball here. If I were an Apple shareholder, I wouldn’t be very happy. I would be highly suspect of the long-term prospect of getting into a low-margin, heavy-manufacturing business.”

Then again, turning raw steel into physical cars may not be what Apple has in mind. Principal analyst, founder and chairman of Constellation Research Ray Wang wonders if the company is looking for new opportunities for its operating system. He says, “Apple may not get into the car business but they may provide all the pieces required to deliver the new digital experience for auto makers to build on top of. If they choose this route, they can create another area of the Apple OS to grow market share and increase and already impossibly high total addressable market.”

It’s a possibility with which GM executives agree. Akerson says of his days as CEO, “I would’ve signed it over. I’d have turned over the infotainment and interconnectivity of every GM car.” Jon Bereisa, CEO of consulting firm Auto Lectrification LLC who worked on the Chevy Volt program, further states, “With autonomous cars, there will be more software, more computation and more controls and some of that could even reside in the cloud. They could work with car companies to put Apple inside.”

Apart from the hype and conjecture of what Apple might, and might not, intend to do, there are some things we do know. First, Apple has the cash and the ability to put a car company together, which puts them ahead of other companies (notably Tesla Motors), who could not break into the auto industry even with government subsidies and tax write offs. As the most profitable company in the world, Apple has room to experiment with some risky ventures.

Second, Apple is hiring car people. As figures on LinkedIn show, the company has been sponging up automotive engineers and experts at enough of a pace to be noticed — as many as 60 former Tesla employees now sport Apple security badges on their shirt pockets,

Third, there is a lawsuit against Apple, filed by A123 Systems. Reuters reports that the company, which makes electric car batteries, has sued the iPhone maker for poaching top engineers since around June, 2014. The aim? To build a large-scale battery division. The lawsuit even suggests that “Apple, with the assistance of defendant [former A123 engineer Mujeeb] Ijaz, is systematically hiring away A123’s high-tech PhD and engineering employees, thereby effectively shutting down various projects/programs at A123.”

Whether Apple is actually attempting to make an iCar, or whether it is simply researching and developing next-generation car technologies, remains to be seen. But despite the unanswered questions surrounding the alleged Project Titan, one thing is for certain: if anyone can pull it off, Apple can.

 

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