Why an electric car could be Apple’s biggest disruption yet

14 Feb 2015

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The very idea is enough to send Apple faithful and fanbois into a frenzy: an iCar! It appears Apple is working on its own electric-car project – code-named “Titan” – and is intent on giving Tesla “a run for its money”.

There is no doubt about it, cars are the next frontier of tech after smartphones, cloud and tablet computers. Every tech company is clamouring to interface with existing car companies, while some – note Google and Apple – are slyly working to reimagine the personal transport of the future.

In recent weeks evidence emerged that Apple was working on some kind of vehicle experiment as Apple-registered SUVs were spotted in California and New York festooned with cameras and LiDAR sensors, giving rise to speculation it was either working on a Street View mapping exercise for Apple Maps or even a self-driving car.

Now it looks like Apple could be working on an Apple-branded electric vehicle that would compete with Tesla. An even more tantalising vision is an electric self-driving vehicle.

The Wall Street Journal has revealed that Apple has several hundred people working on an Apple-branded electric car.

Code-named “Titan” the initial prototype resembles a minivan and the project is being spearheaded by Apple’s product design vice president Steve Zadesky, a former Ford executive.

Zadesky, it is understood, has been given permission to create a 1,000-strong team and Apple has hired the president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz R&D Johann Jungwirth and other seasoned auto industry execs to work at a top secret automotive research lab.

Apple is also believed to be locked in a poaching war with Tesla, one that Tesla is currently winning through 60pc salary increases and US$250,000 bonuses.

Tesla is currently riding on a wave of triumph, as orders for its new P85D – which comes with a beguiling new “insane mode” – skyrocket and the Elon Musk-headed company builds a gigantic mega factory to keep up with orders. It has even emerged that Musk – often compared to Steve Jobs – is pushing Tesla to create giant batteries to power homes.

Road to ruin or highway to heaven?

Tesla's new P85D saloon

But in moving towards electric cars, does Apple realise what it is taking on?

Elon Musk is often compared to Tony Stark, the Iron Man hero, but in reality he’s a gutsy entrepreneur with a boundless imagination that involves not only electric vehicles but space exploration and trains that can zoom between mega cities in a matter of minutes.

As we all know the road to success is littered with failures and Musk in bringing Tesla to where it is today has had more than a few close scrapes.

Near run things include successive last-minute funding rounds and bailouts, re-imagining the idea countless times, problems with drive trains, product recalls, to even laying off 10pc of the Tesla workforce in 2007 to get the project on the right track.

The interior of Tesla's new P85D saloon

Today the company is bringing in revenues of US$3bn and more but is still operating at a loss. But either way, it is heading in the right direction with quality cars that run on lithium-ion batteries and which are capable of ranges of 320km and capable of top speeds of 249km per hour.

Not only that, but the cars are equipped with the latest in hi-tech gadgetry including radar and sonar technology.

Tesla is beginning to dabble in autonomous driving experiences and its Model S can detect road signs, lane markings, obstacles and other vehicles and new vehicles are capable of semi-autonomous drive and parking capabilities.

Tesla’s success has been hard fought, and it is nowhere near its destination.

Imagining the future of transport

Renault's Twzy electric city car

Traditional car manufacturers like Ford, Audi, BMW, Daimler and Mercedes-Benz are all trying to imagine what the future of transport, indeed car ownership will look like in the decades to come.

Eventually, the vision is autonomous driving within just a few short years of now.

A recent conversation with the chief digital officer of Renault Patrick Hoffstetter indicated that car makers know there is an intrinsic link between smart devices and vehicles and the manufacturers are coming up with all kinds of ways of marrying the two, from apps that can unlock and start your car with your phone to cars that allow you to switch between driving and autonomous driving whenever it suits you.

“We see the car as the sixth screen,” Hoffstetter said. “Our vision of the autonomous car is not so much about a car that will drive you through the city, but more about giving you time with your infotainment. You are still driving the car but in some instances you will be able to be autonomous and retrieve your focus from pure driving in order to consume services.

“We don’t talk about autonomous driving the same way most people in the media are talking about it. We believe you should also have the capacity to go back to driving much like an airline pilot or a train driver can enjoy automated functions but switch back to manual at any time.”

Google's latest self-driving vehicle prototype

Late last year Google revealed just how advanced autonomous vehicles had become proving vehicles could not only sense other vehicles but also pedestrians possibly about to cross the road.

It is in discussions with motor giants Ford, Toyota, Daimler, Volkswagen and General Motors to bring self-driving cars to market by 2020.

In recent weeks, Google revealed its latest autonomous vehicles with built-in intelligence and sensors that take note of pedestrians likely to cross the street, for example.

Not only that but Google is also about to take on Uber at its own game with a ride-sharing app that will actually link with its self-driving cars, so with an app you can summon a robot car to take you to the shops, work or home.

Uber is also working on R&D for its own self-driving vehicles and has established a lab in Pittsburgh to build its own fleet of autonomous vehicles. The lab is staffed by 50 scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute who had a hand in building the Mars Rover.

Why Apple might be right on the money about electric cars

One of the mysterious Apple-registered minivans spotted in San Francisco and New York. Photo via Claycord.com

Apple has money. Lots of money. Having brought itself back from the brink in 1996 through deftly and correctly guessing the right trends in tech and creating quality products like the iPhone, the company recently recorded the highest profit in business history with profits of US$18bn arising from revenues of US$75bn during which it sold 74.5m iPhones and 21.4m iPad devices.

Not only that but the company is the most valuable on the planet, with a market capitalisation that has just surpassed US$700bn.

The company has even commenced the construction of a giant US$848m, 130 megawatt solar farm in California that will produce enough energy to power its new spaceship headquarters and all of its retail stores in California, equal to 60,000 homes.

So what is the next frontier for Apple?

The very notion of an Apple Car, or an iCar if you will, is a tantalising one. When Apple builds something, it takes its time to get it right. The forthcoming Apple Watch is a case in point and Apple Pay comes at least two to three years on the heels of Google Wallet, for example.

Apple’s focus on quality industrial design thanks to luminaries like Jony Ive is celebrated.

The company’s unique approach to interface design and user experience is exemplary.

So an iCar is not totally out of the question, but building one and testing it and eventually bringing a vehicle to market is something that could take years and could prove very expensive to accomplish.

But saying that don’t forget Apple dabbled briefly with an alliance with Motorola before going it alone and changing technology history forever in 2007 with the iPhone, despite never having made a phone of its own before and in turn displacing the established computing and mobile phone giants forever. The iPhone was the ultimate disruption.

Therefore Apple has the means, the know-how and the guts to try something truly disruptive with cars.

It’ll be transport Tim, but not as you know it

You could picture Del Boy and Rodney in one of these – the driverless Lutz 'Pathfinder' Pod which is being tested by the UK government

To date – with the exception of Tesla – electric cars have lacked style, even substance. Many of them look like golf carts, something Mr Bean wouldn’t look out of place in or even that Trotter’s Trading three-wheeler from Only Fools and Horses.

Self-driving vehicles haven’t fared much better in the design stakes. Google’s self-driving vehicle reminds me of Noddy’s wheels while the driverless Lutz ‘Pathfinder’ Pod is positively poxy looking.

Most of these vehicles are small, two-seater things that for now miss the potential of what autonomous driving could be all about. That’s why reading of Apple’s use of minivans sparks the imagination a little.

In the future we may not even own vehicles. Much like today with Uber and Hailo we may just have accounts or apps that we will use to summon vehicles to bring us from A to B.

Most people, freed from the need to propel themselves on long, lone journeys in saloon cars to work, will probably spend more time at home being productive or at leisure with their families.

They may travel alone if the need requires and a two-seater is fine or they may travel in groups and hence proportionately bigger and safer electrical or autonomous vehicles that can be summoned to carry groups on nights out or take entire families to and from the airport by tapping on a smartphone app would be ideal.

Perhaps Apple has seen this future and is working on a bigger and broader strategy. The Cupertino tech giant could be biting off more than it can chew, or it could be embarking on the journey towards its biggest disruption yet.

I think this is road trip we will all enjoy.

Apple Store in Hong Kong image at top via Shutterstock

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com