Why an Apple Car would make sense
By now, you've likely heard the latest Apple rumor. No, it's not about the Apple Watch or the much vaunted Apple TV set or even the strange-sounding iPad Pro.
No, the latest rumor is, on its face, the most ridiculous yet: An Apple car.
There is too much smoke around this rumor for it to be entirely without merit. We first saw reports on Monday that Apple was working on something that would, to quote one of Business Insider's sources at Apple, "give Tesla a run for its money."
SEE ALSO: Apple is developing an electric car, report says
By Friday, the Financial Times reported Apple had started hiring employees from the automotive industry for a secretive new research lab.
One of those hires includes Johann Jungwirth, formerly the president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development. This was further bolstered by a report on Friday from The Wall Street Journal, claiming that Apple has "several hundred employees working secretly toward creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle."
According to the Journal, the Apple car project was approved nearly a year ago by CEO Tim Cook. Steve Zadesky, a longtime Apple veteran and former Ford engineer, is reportedly leading.
Then on Saturday, Reuters jumped into the fray to say that "Apple is learning how to make a self-driving electric car and is talking to experts at carmakers and automotive suppliers."
These stories are all speculative, are all unconfirmed and could all ultimately lead to nothing. Still, as with past rumors about Apple's entry into tablet and wearables, there is simply too much reporting — and from sources with too strong of a track-record — to dismiss the idea of an Apple car out of hand.
So why would Apple build a car?
Still, my initial response to hearing that Apple was getting into the car game was to laugh. I mean, why would a computer company — computers, large and small and phone-like, is all the company has ever made — want to be in the automotive business?
Cars upgrade cycles are long. R&D investment is tremendous. Regulatory pressure is immense, production lines are complex and product liability issue are huge. The skill set involved in creating a great car is arguably very different than the skill sets involve in building a great computer, tablet or phone.
So why would Apple want in on the auto business? One possible answer is a glib one: Just because everyone else in Silicon Valley cares about it.
For years, Google has been investing in self-driving cars. Tesla, which has poached plenty of employees from Apple in the past (and has an Apple-like halo-effect around its brand and its user experience), is creating a widespread conversation around the technology of electric, battery-powered cars.
You wouldn't have been wrong to assume that CES 2015 was partially an auto show, thanks to myriad of companies showing off smart car systems, self-driving mechanisms, augmented reality displays and other connected car items.
Companies are starting to make big, long term bets on the "next big thing." And for many companies,
the future of automotive is the new hotness
the future of automotive is the new hotness. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Apple might agree with Google, Tesla and others that the car is a worthy moonshot project.
Electric cars are appealing for other reasons, with the memory of massive spikes in fuel prices still fresh and with a growing global interest in climate change.
To self-drive or not to self-drive
For many in the automotive industry — as well as Google — the next big technological frontier is cars that drive themselves.
As someone who hates to drive, this is a future I can firmly get behind. A self-driving, self-parking car that can drop me off at work or take me to the corner store while I sit back, check my email and play games? Sign-me up!
Here, the early reports about the alleged Apple car are mixed. The Wall Street Journal says that self-driving cars are not part of the project, while the Reuters report directly contradicts that.
Of course, nobody has any real inside information on the Apple car project. But if Apple is interested in a car it has to be at least experimenting with the mechanics of a self-driving car.
Not only is that an interesting technological challenge to address, it would be in Apple's wheelhouse, especially when it comes to marrying hardware and software.
We're not going to see an Apple car this year, if ever
With all the excitement over the rumored project, it's important to throw cold water on expectations:
You will not see an Apple car this year. Or next year.
If the Journal is correct, the Apple automotive project has been in the works for about a year and has less than 1,000 people on its team.
This means that the project is in nascent stages — and that's assuming the goal is a car, not another embedded system for all cars.
We're not going to see an Apple car on the road in 2015. Or in 2016. Probably not even in 2017. This will not see the light of day for a very long time. Anyone putting off buying a new Volkswagen in lieu of the iCar should put those plans aside right now.
A car play would be a longterm bet on, well, driving the future. It's not, as the Journal points out, an inexpensive industry to enter. Tesla spends $1.5 billion on R&D each year and still only manages to ship 35,000 cars. Apple has more than $100 billion in the bank.
As well capitalized as Apple is, however, money can't speed-up the research and development process, especially if self-driving cars are the goal.
It might not be a car at all
All of the reports that have leaked thus far are confident that Apple is working on an automotive-based project, but are still smart enough to hedge against it.
Each article includes a carefully-worded disclaimer: "Apple has plenty of projects in the pipeline and in R&D that never hit the market" and "this could just be about trying to create a better, more integrated alternative to CarPlay."
Apple's interests in cars could be less about the vehicle itself and more about the software that controls the car. On its face, that would be a much more synergistic play.
Cupertino already has CarPlay, its partnership with a few dozen carmakers and aftermarket in-dash kits to bring better connectivity between your iPhone and your car's electronics system.
But CarPlay is still something of a hack.
In most automobiles, it is just a UI that sits on top of another embedded system (ironically, usually QNX, owned by BlackBerry). Most of the apps and experiences run off your phone and into the car itself.
CarPlay, at least now, is not as advanced as Ford Sync, let alone the Linux-based dashboard Tesla has on its car. It's a nice way to bring your music, some apps and Apple Maps to the car (whether the average user would want Apple Maps over Google Maps in the car is another question), but it's hardly pushing the boundaries.
CarPlay reminds me a bit of the Motorola Rokr. You remember the Rokr, right? It was the first "iTunes Phone." Released in 2005, it was the first phone to work with iTunes. It was terrible and it was what reportedly convinced Steve Jobs that if Apple wanted to be involved in phones, it would have to make them itself.
The same could be true for a connected car ecosystem. Rather than building out CarPlay to sit atop existing systems, where it can't control the entire experience, maybe the plan is for Apple to build the software — and potentially some of the internal hardware — of the car itself.
A car, electric or otherwise, equipped with Apple-designed internals and Apple software is something that could move the needle and push consumers into a car-buying decision.
Nobody thought Apple would ever be a player in the phone world, either.
We just don't know
The idea of an Apple car sounds insane on its face, but if this really is going to be one of the next big areas of technology's evolution, it would be equally insane for Apple to not be involved in some capacity.
Over the next few weeks and months we'll undoubtedly hear plenty of additional rumors along with plenty of naysayers.
Remember the years-long rumor binges related to iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV? We're in for another period of Apple rumors amok. This time, on four wheels.