Apple Should Design An Electric Car... Interior

Only 21% responding to a recent survey claim they would buy an Apple electric car. 48% would buy one from BMW. Good. Apple shouldn't design an electric car. They should design the interior of one.

The survey of 4,000 people in eight countries, primarily in Europe, but also including the U.S., China and Japan, by consultant Bain & Co., claims high-income buyers are ready to buy all-electric vehicles as a second vehicle for short trips. "Consumers would be buying now if there were products," says Gregor Matthies, a Munich-based partner at Bain specializing in the auto industry.

Of course, as you'd expect, demand is highest among people who already own luxury cars, but feel guilty and want to show the world they really, really, really do care about the environment. Actually, not the world so much. Really they only want to show the people who live on their street and anyone they happen across in their travels.

What the survey also found was customers are eager to buy an electric car from familiar names such as Toyota, Daimler, Volkswagen or BMW. (Respondents weren't asked about the U.S. carmakers.) "The consumers are expecting trusted brands to deliver these products," says Matthies.

But, there's another challenge for carmakers - differentiating their products from the competition. Electric motors are much less complicated to build than internal combustion engines and don't use the same gearboxes, have the same engine noises and torque curves that have sold BMWs, Lexus and Mercedes as unique.

So design may be the key competitive factor. As we're already seeing with the Volt, Prius and new Insight, there's little you can do with the exterior of a car on a hybrid when you're attempting to minimize wind resistance to maximize fuel economy. Luckily, electrics aren't truly in a real-world competition mode yet. They don't need to maximize wind resistance because the desire with an electric is not to truly maximize fuel economy, it's to look green and look good doing it. Thus, the Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma can look fast and cool because they're not designed to be appliances like the Prius, Volt and Insight.

Some automakers may decide to form partnerships with companies known for superb product design. Thus, the reason the Bain survey asked people whether they would buy a car from Apple (also, Thomas Friedman, but he can suck it). Only 21% of Europeans asked said they would, vs. 48% who said they'd be willing to buy an electric car from BMW. Still, Apple's score was surprisingly high considering they've never made a motor vehicle.

Despite the response rate, they shouldn't be designing an electric car exterior, or even partnering with an automaker on one. Here's why. As the market for electric cars matures, design may be the key competitive factor. And since the exterior of most "appliance" electric cars will eventually mature to take advantage of wind resistance needs, there won't but much room for toying with design. But the interior? That'd be a place to play around with.

Apple has long been known for producing some of the most popular and user friendly gadgets and computers on the planet and they've excelled in creating a usable human machine interface (HMI) with the iPod scroll wheel. They've also gotten pretty close to perfection with the iPod Touch and iPhone touch-screen interface that would surely do a lot of good if their methods replaced the crappy touch screen navigation systems installed in most cars today. BMW, Audi and Mercedes have all tried their hands at creating their own HMI experience with their wheeled control devices, but we all know how that's panned out.

If Apple were to give Jonathon Ive and his design team the task to design the interior of an electric car, how could they really make it better? For starters, they would likely integrate all HVAC, navigation and media control functions into one simple, usable interface not unlike the iPod scroll wheel. Haptic touch would be a necessity to allow the driver to concentrate on driving the car while interfacing with the secondary controls, but how would this information get transmitted? It's likely that a large 7-8" infotainment screen would remain, but the current gauge cluster of today's cars would go the way of the dodo, instead, it would be replaced by a large format LCD display that would match the center stack's infotainment display. A simple icon-based navigation layout would be likely a.k.a. the Apple OS dock, but would be simplified for use while driving. These are just a few of the obvious ways that Apple could improve on the interior of electric cars and would hopefully trickle down to more mainstream cars.

There's no lying when we say Apple knows how to build a consumer product but they should never even think of building an electric car. However the interior? Well, quite simply put, Apple could potentially revolutionize the way we see interiors, much the same as they've done for computers, mp3 players and cell phones. We just hope that doesn't mean gloss white plastic everywhere we look.

[via BusinessWeek, Bain & Co.]