What Apple Really Wants From ‘iCar’

Article By : Colin Barnden

Is Apple really planning to produce an iCar? Probably. Rumors of the “iCar” have been circulating and recirculating for years, but its time may have finally come...

Is Apple really planning to produce an iCar? Probably.

According to a report from Reuters, Apple is targeting production of a passenger car starting in 2024. Rumors of the “iCar”, also known as Project Titan, have been circulating and recirculating for years, but its time may have finally come. Let’s look at that idea in more detail.

Contrary to popular belief, Apple rarely has first-mover advantage. The Apple iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, that accolade probably goes to the MPMan F-10 from SaeHan Information Systems. Remember them? Another early product was the PMP300 from Rio, while my first MP3 player was the Creative Zen Touch, purchased in 2004. It died when the hard drive failed.

Apple was nowhere close to inventing the smartphone, with the iPhone introduced years after products from Blackberry and Nokia; the iPad came more than a decade after products from Palm and Psion – and a terrible handheld computer called Newton from a company called Apple; Fitbit, Garmin and Jawbone were all first to market with smart watches, long before the Apple Watch.

So, we can see Apple’s hardware strategy – it observes what the competition does, works out precisely what the mass-market consumer wants and then simply does it better than anyone else. If you think that the Silicon Valley mantra of “moving fast and breaking things” applies to Apple products, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Look out, Tesla
It is obvious which car company Apple has been watching and learning from. Tesla. I take the recent press reports quoting Elon Musk saying he considered selling Tesla to Apple  as the clearest possible confirmation of the iCar. Tim Cook doesn’t need Tesla.

Suddenly every automaker is entering the electric vehicle (EV) segment. There’s the BMW iX, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Porsche Taycan and VW ID4, to name but a few. Ford, GM and Rivian are all working on electric trucks. If Tesla can do EVs, then Apple can do EVs, and anyone who wants to bet against the folks at Cupertino might first want to review the carcasses of Jawbone, Nokia and Rio.

I can already hear the fanboys shouting at me “What about Tesla’s Supercharger network?” That is a fair point, but it overlooks the change in the political mood that has already occurred following the nomination of Pete Buttigieg as President-elect Joe Biden’s Transportation secretary. Earlier this week, Buttigieg tweeted:

“To meet the climate crisis, we must put millions of new electric vehicles on America’s roads. It’s time to build public charging infrastructure powered by clean energy and make it available in all parts of this country.”

The moat that is Tesla’s Supercharger network looks set to evaporate by 2024. Recent Tesla investors beware.

Tesla has also shown Apple it would be wise to entirely avoid the self-driving debate and the “race to Level 5.” 2021 is likely to see many other automakers follow Ford’s lead and steer away from the liability issues associated with conditional automation at Level 3 and component costs associated with Level 4 in mass-market vehicles.

Ford’s Mustang Mach-E is such a beautiful car and with a slew of positive reviews,  that if someone photoshopped an Apple logo on to the front grille, I could be convinced that the iCar was already in production. Apart from Tesla fanboys, who will care that the Mach-E is “only” Level 2?

Why car
Like the iPhone, Apple can subcontract manufacture of the iCar, most probably to Magna. It doesn’t need to work on safety, security, body or chassis systems, these can all be supplied off-the-shelf by tier one suppliers such as Bosch, Continental, Veoneer and Magna.

It is reported that Apple will bring proprietary battery technology to the iCar and I would add to that complex electrical architecture design resulting in a software-defined car with over-the-air updates.

Mercedes-Benz will not be able to boast of software-defined anything come 2024 and its long-term survival will depend on having a couple of tricks up its sleeve, or Mercedes will find itself competing with a mass of Chinese EV makers with all the exact same technology licensed from Nvidia.

Apple Maps car with photo mast when testing the entrance height to a parking garage of a shopping center in the old town in Germany, shot in July 2020 (Source: Shutterstock)

So why iCar and why now? The answer is almost certainly Google’s roaring success building an ecosystem around Android Automotive OS suggesting that the real battleground is likely not to be EV, but infotainment.

Apple simply cannot stand back and watch arch-rival Google dominate the customer relationship in the automobile. The car is increasingly becoming an extension of the smartphone and it is the infotainment system that is the bridge between the phone and the car. Apple CarPlay and Google Android Automotive have shown us that.

Thus, my interpretation of the news is that Apple and Google are expanding into the automotive market according to their operational norms: Google by supplying the Android Automotive OS software and building an ecosystem with Qualcomm for the infotainment processor and a series of tier one vendors to supply the hardware. Apple by supplying the entire product.

If that sounds like déjà vu, well ladies and gentlemen, I give you smartphones all over again. And if my assumptions are correct that Google Android Automotive OS will support eye-gaze tracking, you can be absolutely certain that the Apple iCar will do too.

So where are we most likely to pick up the first “tell” about the Apple iCar? Pay close attention to announcements from automotive eye-tracking companies such as Cipia, Jungo, Seeing Machines and Smart Eye.

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