Apple's autonomous auto: is Apple's hidden car project really happening?

Apple’s biggest secret project could be something no one expected – a driverless electric car

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 us 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 movesare 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.

This article was originally published in MacFormat magazine.

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