Is Apple going to challenge Tesla with an electric car?

Apple vs. Tesla logos
Promo image Apple/Tesla

Will Apple do to the car industry what it did to the phone industry?

The Apple rumor mill has recently given birth to a giant new piece of speculation: That Apple is planning to go head-to-head with Tesla by going in the electric car market. Exhibit A is a Wall Street Journal piece that cites "people familiar with the matter" who claim that a project with the code name of "Titan" is underway, with a thousand-people team under Apple Vice President Steve Zadesky, a former Ford engineer who was on the teams that created the iPod and iPhone, and Johann Jungwirth, who was Mercedes Benz's R&D chief before being hired by Apple last fall.

Exhibit B is a bit more indirect, but it could nonetheless be telling: Apple and Tesla are currently engaged in a talent war, poaching each other's employees by using quarter-of-a-million-dollar signing bonuses and big salaries. Of course, Apple could use Tesla employees for projects that have nothing to do with electric cars (many have expertise in batteries, software, and all kinds of engineering and manufacturing), but for many that would be under-utilizing their true expertise...

Exhibit C comes from Steve Jobs himself: "In a meeting in his office before he died, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and former chief executive, told John Markoff of The New York Times that if he had more energy, he would have liked to take on Detroit with an Apple car."

Will gas cars go the way of the flip phone?

What makes an Apple electric vehicle seem less crazy than it might have sounded a few years ago is that vehicles have been moving in the direction of computers for a while now. They used to be all about mechanical attributes, like valves and pistons and crankshafts, but now, electric cars are becoming more about software, user interface, and batteries, all areas of expertise for the fruit company.

Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

In a world where cars will increasingly be giant batteries with electric motors (above is a Tesla Model S drivetrain and battery), the differentiation will become more about design and these very things, in the same way that in a world of smartphones that are all glass rectangles, most of the differentiation comes from the user interface and software (hardware matters a lot too, but it's not sufficient on its own, as HTC realized).

Tesla/Promo image

And of course, this becomes exponentially more true in a world of self-driving, either partly or fully autonomous vehicles. That's where software will matter most (and it's actually a big strength of Tesla, as can be see with their Autopilot feature).

Another interesting tidbit: Apple's head of design, Jony Ive, was profiled in a lengthy New Yorker piece, and it in there's a passing mention that he and famed designer and new Apple employee Marc Newson are very interested in car design.

He and Newson are car guys, and they feel disappointed with most modern cars; each summer, they attend the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where vintage sports cars are exhibited and raced in the South of England. “There are some shocking cars on the road,” Ive said. “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.” To his right was a silver sedan with a jutting lower lip. Ive said, quietly, “For example.” As the disgraced car fell behind, I asked Ive to critique its design: “It is baffling, isn’t it? It’s just nothing, isn’t it? It’s just insipid.”

An Apple employee is also reported to have told Business Insider: "Apple's latest project is too exciting to pass up. I think it will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money."

Pushing speculation up a notch are minivans fitted with special equipment (see below) that have been spotted in many places, and while there is no company logo on them, internet amateur detectives believe they are operated by Apple.

If that was the only thing we knew, the logical explanation would be that these are Apple's version of the Google Maps cars that are driving around, gathering data for Google's mapping system. After all, Apple doesn't yet have an answer to Google Streetview.

But in light of the Project Titan rumors, it's possible that Apple is testing some high-tech sensors out in the real-world (which would be surprising for a company where secrecy is paramount, but if you plan to make a vehicle that will drive on public roads, at some point you have to start testing the equipment on public roads...). The WSJ's source also said that the prototype "looks like a minivan", but that could still change before the final version.

One thing is certain, we shouldn't expect an Apple Electric Car soon. Project Titan was only begun last year, so a final product - if it exists, and if it isn't scrappy, as Apple does with a lot of experiments that don't quite work - won't see the light of day for a while.

Bottom line is that anything that helps hasten the demise of the internal combustion engine is a good thing, and it would certainly be a good thing to have the biggest company in the world put its full weight behind electric cars. Tesla has already been a catalyst for the industry, but Apple could really put things in overdrive.

Tags: Apple Inc | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles

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