All signs point to the fact that Apple is working on a car, and over the last year there’s been plenty of speculation about what that could mean.
During the C3 Connected Mobility Summit in San Francisco, a panel of experts linked all the recent rumors together to try to decipher Apple’s plan for disrupting the auto industry. This year alone, rumors surrounding the Apple car, codenamed Project Titan, surfaced as follows: Apple has filed permits to build a “auto work area” near Cupertino, leased a super-secret testing facility, and met with the California DMV. There’s even speculation that Apple has created not one, but two shell companies to disguise its car-building operations. And then there’s the coolest rumor of them all: that Apple will be making smart windshields.
The rumors—coupled with news that Apple has hired a bunch of experts in electric batteries, A.I., and automotive—help paint a better picture as to what we can expect to come out of Project Titan. Who knows? We might even get to see it sooner than 2019, the year when the Apple Car is rumored to hit the road.
Short-lived partnerships lead to solo projects
From poaching industry executives to partnering with other companies, Apple’s not-so-secret moves closely resemble the company’s launch of the iPhone and the Apple Watch, according to the panel moderated by C3 Group CEO Dave Robinson.
“Apple has a history of partnering with another company in another industry, learning a few lessons, and launching its own product,” said panelist John Suh, executive director of Hyundai Ventures. Suh was referring to the short-lived partnership between Apple and Motorola that led to the 2005 Rokr phone with iTunes built in.
Even though the Rokr was a total failure, Suh said that Apple learned a lot about the mobile phone industry from partnering with Motorola, enough to launch the jaw-dropping iPhone just two years later.
Similarly, it’s been widely reported that Apple and BMW were in talks to collaborate on an electric car. Apple CEO Tim Cook toured the BMW headquarters in 2014; however, talks of a partnership have fizzled and it seems like Apple is doing a car solo.
Who they are hiring—and why
The Apple hiring spree for Project Titan kicked off back in February. Even the early hires suggested back then that Apple was interested in more than just powering the CarPlay dashboard software. Throughout the year, Apple has brought on executives from Tesla, Chrysler, Nvidia, and advanced battery-maker A123 Systems (currently suing Apple for poaching employees).
Some of the high-profile hires, however, are experts in deep learning and artificial intelligence. What about hiring people who know how to make a car accelerate and brake? The answer may offer another clue into Apple’s auto strategy, according to Sarah Pilewski, a principal at data platform Quid.
“It shows [Apple’s] priorities,” Pilewski said during the C3 panel. “Apple is perfecting the car’s user experience first and the other aspects will come later or be outsourced.”
Similarly, when Apple was developing the Apple Watch, it first hired medical and sleep experts and people who knew about machine learning and sensors. Of course, putting together a moving vehicle, not even an autonomous one, is more complicated than a wrist accessory. But based on the hires, it is an interesting observation that Apple is choosing to focus first on how the iCar will interact with the driver.
Why the Apple Car will be unlike any other
If Project Titan prevails, Apple will be the first computer company to launch a car, and according to the C3 panelists, that will be a major breakthrough.
Even if it’s not self-driving, the Apple Car will be like no other car on the market based solely on the fact that it will be another part of Apple’s expanding ecosystem. According to Suh, the Apple Car will most likely be seamlessly linked to your iPhone, your Mac, your iPad, and your Apple Watch. Not only that, but it will also be connected to everything stored on those devices, like your music, messages, contacts, and calendars.
“If Apple decided today to make your iPhone you car key, it could do that very easily,” Suh said. “No other company in the world could do that.” He’s right: we don’t see BMW launching a smartphone anytime soon, or Samsung getting into the car business.
Furthermore, Suh speculates that the Apple Car will combine Cupertino’s expertise in design, batteries, tactile interfaces, sensor technology, mapping, navigation and hardware-software integration.
“It will be an immersive experience where for the first time the Internet will move with you,” he said. “You will be moving through the Internet as you move through space.”
Lastly, Pilewski thinks that Apple could also disrupt the car-buying experience. What would an Apple Car dealership look like? This is especially interesting considering how young people are owning fewer cars. Some millennials are opting out of getting a driver’s license altogether, according to Pilewski.
“Will you need a driver’s license to operate an autonomous car?” asked C3 Group CEO Dave Robinson, the panel moderator.
Apple’s advantage as an outsider
Although we can’t yet confirm whether the iCar will be electric or autonomous, the panelists claimed one thing’s for sure: Apple has a big advantage entering the auto industry as an outsider.
“The advantage of a new entrant comes into play when you think about meeting regulations, minimizing the risk for stakeholders, and satisfying your existing customers,” Pilewski said, talking to the current big car companies. “You are beholden to them, and that slows you down. That environment is not ripe for innovation.”
Pilewski said this was the reason why tech startups have been able to succeed as new entrants to big established industries.
“When you think of services like Uber and Airbnb, they ignore regulations right off the bat until they are forced to comply,” she said. “The car companies don’t have that luxury, for better or for worse.”