The idea of Apple building a car is media catnip – it sends ordinarily sober journalists (yes, there are a few) into flights of wild speculation. In the wake of a Wall Street Journal article that seems to confirm that the Cowboys of Cupertino are indeed dabbling in the automotive realm, one writer gushed that it was “one of the most important moments in the history of transportation.”
Others archly wondered if an iCar would include iconic Apple features, like a proprietary charging cord that changes with each new model, or an annoying popup that prompts you to sign into iCloud every time you shift gears. Will it only be drivable on roads available from the iPavement Store?
There’s no longer any doubt that Apple is at least toying with the idea of producing an EV. Citing “people familiar with the matter,” the WSJ reports that the company is assembling a team of 1,800 personnel, including veteran auto engineers and battery experts, for a project that is code-named Titan, and is aiming for a launch in 2019. Apple has looked into scheduling time at a secure vehicle testing facility, and met with officials from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
There’s also little doubt that Apple has the resources to pull it off. It has some $200 billion in cash on hand, and its 2014 revenue from iPhone sales alone – $121 billion – was roughly equal to Ford’s total revenue. Its record of introducing compelling new technology, and disrupting existing industries, is impressive.
Of course, an iCar is far from a done deal. As EV boosters know all too well, it’s not unusual for big companies to drop a few hundred million bucks on idle R&D projects that end up coming to naught. And 2019 is a long way off, at least in tech terms.
Anyway, why would a hip and trendy company want to get into such a stodgy and highly regulated industry? For one thing, Apple needs new worlds to conquer. As an article in re/code noted, the smartphone market is getting saturated – sales are expected to rise a “mere” 10% this year. The $2-trillion global auto market is, of course, even more mature – PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts a piddling 3.5% compounded annual growth rate through 2021. But for the currently minuscule market in EVs, the potential is oceanic. A projected CAGR of 19% should be enough to raise eyebrows even in Silicon Valley.
Even more important, cars are the new tech frontier, and Apple (and its rivals) simply can’t afford to be left at the border. The triple trend of electrification, autonomy and connectivity is going to completely reshape the industry, and much of human society along with it. Apple wants us to use its products everywhere, all the time, and much of that time is spent in our cars.
As re/code’s Dawn Chmielewski put it, “For Apple, moving into cars is about owning the experience on a new tech platform – and keeping Google from dominating.” The Goog has already invested in the EV arms race, and other players, including existing tech giants and Chinese-funded startups, are sure to follow.
Various current events and trends, from VW’s betrayal to Tesla’s triumphs to the major automakers’ failure to market their own EVs, reinforce a growing impression that the established OEMs are ill-equipped to navigate the coming transition to electromobility.
Ben Thompson, author of the Stratechery blog, put it well: “The industry is on the verge of a fundamental shift from combustion engines to electric ones. And, if the technology industry is any sort of relevant example, it’s likely that the incumbent car companies will fall behind in that transition.”
Sources: re/code, Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, Fortune, The Onion, Stratechery