September 28, 2021

Opinion: Everyone chill — the Apple Car isn’t coming any time soon, if ever

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483598237By Chris Taylor From Mashable

Apple is a company with a long, long history of extremely tightly-controlled media access. It doesn’t want to engage, and doesn’t need to, unless we’re all getting the wrong impression about something. Say, for example, whether or not it’s time to get excited about an Apple Car.

So the Bloomberg story that dropped late Thursday — warning us that it would be at least 5 years until we see an Apple Car rolling off a production line — had many of the hallmarks of a strategic Apple leak. Apple may not have been able to control the rumors that it is working on some kind of car battery tech; a lawsuit from electric car battery company A123, concerning Apple poaching its employees, saw to that.

But Apple will be damned if it can’t control expectations. The message is this: Despite the excitable spin Bloomberg put on it (production will begin “as early as 2020”), the fact is, this is a product that is very far off, if it will ever be released at all.

Prototypes are extremely rough and ready, if leaked pictures of an Apple vehicle are to be believed. Considering Sir Jony Ive’s insanely micro-researched, utterly perfectionist standards when it comes to the Apple Watch, 2020 seems an extraordinarily early date to even expect the first production vehicle. With Ive’s design team, a good rule of thumb for estimating arrival time would be one year for every curve on the vehicle.

It isn’t just Ive. We have to consider the habitual caution of CEO Tim Cook, who has a tendency to play the long game. Cook has not bowed to years of pressure for the company to use its $178 billion in the bank to create new products faster. It will be more than four years between his arrival in the role and the launch of the Apple Watch, the company’s first entirely new product on his, er, watch. Rumors of the Apple TV set, or iTV, died down years ago; it too may still arrive someday.

But here too, Cook would rather get it right than get there early.

That said, I do believe Cook wants the company to produce a self-driving electric car I do believe Cook wants the company to produce a self-driving electric car. He is passionately committed to the environment, and to making Apple’s server farms and offices run on power that are as close to carbon-neutral as possible. He hired the former head of the EPA to lead Apple’s green efforts.

If you were him, with an opportunity to disrupt Detroit forever, reduce the carbon emissions of a good chunk of the planet — not to mention reduce traffic deaths, which is a big part of the promise of computer-controlled autos — and you had a practically limitless amount of cash, why wouldn’t you spend a billion or two exploring the opportunity?

There is the possibility that Cook has begun a significant amount of R&D into car tech, leaching employees from Tesla, as a cynical operation designed to scare Elon Musk into discussing a sale of his car company. We know that an Apple acquisition of Tesla has been on the table before, but no doubt Cook would baulk at a price that’s as high as $25 billion, Tesla’s current market capitalization (or $75 billion, which one Silicon Valley entrepreneur suggested would be the sale price).

The prospect of competing against an Apple Car might also make Musk want to give Cupertino a favorable deal on using his forthcoming battery-producing Gigafactory in Nevada — and in return, agreeing not to compete on the same kinds of car.

Cook’s car strategy could be all of the above simultaneously.

At this early stage, there would be little functional difference between real car R&D and a Potemkin operation designed to strike fear into the hearts of potential competitors. Consider that the iPhone was barely a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye five years ahead of its release, and you have some idea of how far out we are from any potential 2020 car action.

Even Bloomberg’s secret sources cautioned that “Apple may decide to scrap its car effort or delay it if executives are unhappy with progress, as they’ve done before with other secret projects.”

If I were Cook, all I’d be doing at this stage is paying a hundred auto engineers to lock themselves up in a secret Apple garage and take apart a Tesla Model S, piece by piece — not only to reverse-engineer the world’s greatest electric vehicle, but also to price out each component, and figure out how Apple’s world-beating supply chain could be used to make this sort of thing cheaper and faster.

In the great debate between my colleagues Christina Warren (who says an Apple Car makes a lot of sense) and Lance Ulanoff (who offers six reasons why the company would never construct such a thing), I walk a middle line. I don’t think car retail presents a huge challenge to the company that created the Apple Store; I don’t think auto unions would be a significant obstacle to the company that tends to use union-free operations like Foxconn.

And I don’t believe it matters one jot that Jobs showed no interest in car tech I don’t believe it matters one jot that Jobs showed no interest in car tech. Cook has long since earned the right to emerge from Jobs shadow — and one of the last things Jobs urged of his successor was not to constantly ask what Steve would do.

But at the same time, I recognize Cook’s supreme, almost pulse-free patience. His historic allergy to risk suggests he may indeed be thinking smaller, along the lines of a better version of CarPlay. Even if he genuinely wants to produce a car down the line, you can’t discount his desire to wait until Apple can make a product that is undeniably (to use his favorite word) better — and to call the whole thing off if it can’t.

With so little actual information swirling around, it’s also vital to recognize one’s inherent bias on the question. Mine is that I would dearly love for Apple to disrupt the auto industry and give Tesla a run for its money. The more pressure that can be brought to bear on creating an electric car infrastructure across America, the better. I’ve long called for Cook to make a big, bold bet with his Walter White-sized pile of cash; this certainly qualifies.

But what we desperately want Apple to do, and what they actually do, are rarely one and the same.

Cook’s career at Apple was forged in the crucible of the late 1990s, when the company was in danger of running out of money. He never wants to revisit that time, so even $178 billion may not be enough to turn him into a profligate spender on big bets like this one.

One thing we can all hope for is that the rumor mill quiets down — especially if we’ve got five more years before we get the first whiff of actual Apple rubber meeting the road.

IMAGE: WHAT’S THIS? This is as close as we’ll get to an Apple Car for at least five years: iPhones in the front, iPad in the back, and actual apples. IMAGE: SAM EDWARDS

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