Thoughts on Apple's Alleged Car Project

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The week of Valentine's Day 2015.  The week when speculation on Apple's next big thing began to reach fever pitch.  Apple is building a self-driving car.  Or at least that's what "people who know people" are saying.   A lot of the speculation really began a week earlier.  On November 4th, Business Insider (lol) ran an article about a "mysterious Apple van" that has been seen roaming around San Francisco.  Of course, going past the obvious conclusion (as they do), they immediately assumed that there is no way that this vehicle was just Apple's attempt at Street View, but in fact is Apple secretly (out in the open in San Francisco!?) testing it's driverless car technology.  From the article:

A camera-mounted van spotted driving around the Bay Area is apparently registered to Apple, and has sparked speculation that the Cupertino company is developing its own Google Street View competitor, Apple Insider reports — or even self-driving car technology.
First spotted by Claycord, the vehicle is a Dodge Caravan with a four-camera rig mounted on the roof. KPIX reached out to the Department of Motor Vehicles and received confirmation that the vehicle is leased to Apple.

When Claycord asked the driver what the vehicle was for, he “would never give an answer.”

There are two possibilities as to what it could be: A Google Street View competitor under development, or a secretive self-driving car project. Analyst Rob Enderle told KPIX that he suspects the latter, saying that it has “too many cameras” to be a Street View-type technology. Apple doesn’t have a license to test self-driving cars itself, but according to Enderle, this doesn’t rule it out — they could be working in partnership with a company that does.
Apple's alleged "self driving car" (read: Apple's probably Street View Car) - Claycord

Apple's alleged "self driving car" (read: Apple's probably Street View Car) - Claycord

The chance that this is part of an Apple self driving car project is nearly nil.   This is very obviously (at least to me) Apple's attempt to catch up with and possibly surpass Google Street View in its Maps application.  Business Insider's assertion that there are "too many cameras" is ridiculous because they neglect to consider what those cameras might be FOR.  

Capturing a 360 degree panorama bubble of an area every few feet like Street View is one thing.  Capturing the actual 3D data of the area is another.   Those extra cameras could very well be kinect-style depth mapping cameras that are building up a high resolution three dimensional mesh of everything that is photographed.   If Apple used the high res photo data in conjunction with the 3d mapped data,  they could create an almost photorealistic 3d world that could be smoothly driven through.   Very much unlike Google Street View which requires that you jump from one 360 degree bubble to the next.

That being said, even if this project is that.  It will still be a long time before Apple is able to capture enough roads to make a useful addition to it's app.  Of course, even with the smart money chiming in that this was bogus,  the hype train didn't stop.   And of course Business Insider was there once again to fan the flames; reporting that an un-named Apple employee said they were working on something that "would give Tesla a run for it's money".  From the article:

Last week we reported on a mysterious Apple van making its way around San Francisco.

After writing about how the van could be used for a self-driving car, we got an unsolicited email from an employee at Apple about “vehicle development” at the company.

This person said Tesla employees were “jumping ship” to work at Apple.

”Apple’s latest project is too exciting to pass up,” the person said. “I think it will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money.”

Apple has about 50 employees who previously worked at Tesla, according to LinkedIn. Many of those hires were engineers who interned at Tesla. Most of the engineers Apple has hired from Tesla specialize in mechanics, manufacturing, and robotics.
— Business Insider

Now, it IS interesting that Apple has been poaching Tesla employees.  And of course, where Apple is concerned, where there is smoke, there is generally at least some fire.   In fact, the idea that they would be looking into building a car is not all that ridiculous.   Though there is almost no chance it would be a self-driving one.   At least not yet.

Think about it.   Building a new car from scratch for a major car maker is a project that can take 5-6 years.  That's 5-6 years for people who are highly versed and experienced in automotive design.   Apple lacks almost entirely the skill set to develop any car, let alone a self driving one.  A few engineers from Tesla isn't going to be anywhere near enough to get them up to speed.

That being said, it might just be enough to get them started on the road.

If I had to guess, this is part of a VERY long game for Apple.  One that may or may not hinge on the acquisition of an upcoming name in the industry.  Yep.  That's right...

Tesla.

To me, Apple has always been about one thing.   Taking something that sucks (PCs, cell phones, MP3 Players, Tablets) and taking them back to the drawing board to do them RIGHT.  One can take a look at the HORRENDOUS UI of the average smart tv or cable box and see why TV has been a growing interest of theirs as well.   So what else sucks?   Car Tech.

Cars mechanically speaking have been refined to near perfection over the past 100 years.   But to an environmentally-concious, design driven company like Apple, cars have two big problems.  

First, gasoline.  Oil and natural gas have become the baseline source of most of our conflcts of the past 20 years.   That shows no sign of stopping, and to Apple, it's time to get off gas.  That means electric, and so far there is only one company with any real skill in getting high range electric cars on the market.   Tesla.

Second, like many of the objects we use today, software quality in cars is becoming a more important part of the experience than it ever has before.  Unfortunately for us, car-makers tend to be horrendous at software/computer hardware.   Terrible slow resistive touchscreens,  slow CPUs, low memory, cluttered UI design, and graphics that look like something from Prodigy in 1992 just add up to something that makes me wish that most cars just went back to AM/FM radios.   Don't even get me started on the pain of pairing a bluetooth device with half of these vehicles.  Disasterous.  

Apple is trying to fix this problem with CarPlay in the same way that Google is trying to fix it with Android Auto.   Unfortunately, that means having to support these automakers terrible hardware.   More than likely this will end up as just another MotoROKR situation.  Apple likes to own the whole stack.   So either they could partner with automakers to design their center consoles (a disaster waiting to happen for a company that likes things it's way),  or they could just build a car.

The big problem with building a car is that it's a project that will take Apple close to a decade to come to fruition, and even then there is no guarantee that it will be good.  So what to do?

Simple.  Buy Tesla, or at least try to.

Apple has $180+ BILLION dollars in cash on hand for a reason.  Big purchases to keep themselves in the fray if need be.  They know that like PCs and the iPod,  the iPhone is a business that won't last forever.  Something will eventually supplant it, and Apple always wants to be ahead of that.

If Apple is interested in getting into the car business, why not simply use some of that war-chest to buy the most Apple-like of the auto manufacturers?    I mean let's be honest here.   The Tesla Model S already looks like a car that Apple would have designed.   Steve Jobs was an unabashed fan of the Mercedes SL550, and lead designer Jony Ive is a longtime fan of Aston Martin.   Put those in a blender with a bit of Apple DNA and you have something closely resembling the Tesla Model S.

Not to mention the side benefits that an Apple acquisition of Tesla would bring.

Apple and Tesla are two of the biggest companies researching battery technology today.  Teaming the two up would be beneficial for both, and battery technology would only improve because of it.

The other major side benefit is Elon Musk.

Perhaps Apple could bring Musk in as a "visionary-in-residence".  If there is one person out there who has that kind of Steve Jobs-ian clout and charisma with the public, it's Musk.  I'm honestly not sure he would be right for Apple's leadership, but having him on campus dreaming up crazy things like SpaceX, and the Hyperloop might be that spark of creativity that some people think Apple is missing.   Maybe he could resurrect Apple's "pirate" division that Jobs' helmed to develop the Macintosh.   An elite team of engineers that develop "moon shot" style products in the way Google Labs does.   Things that may not directly come to market, but inform Apple's internal thinking.

I'm beginning to think that is Apple's basic plan.   Get the ball rolling on WHAT EXACTLY an Apple Car could be.  Do the research, make the designs, get everything in place for doing a Tesla acquisition that would be as important for Tesla as it would be for Apple.  While they are doing that, they will do more work on developing and improving CarPlay and getting it out to as many cars as they can. 

Considering that Apple could get Tesla for around $75 billion, and still have over $100 billion in the bank,  the only question is why not?  I would be on a list for an Apple Model S.

Posted on February 15, 2015 and filed under Technology.