Recently, we learned that Apple had hired Doug Betts, an “auto manufacturing veteran” from Fiat Chrysler. This is a guy whose experience is with actually building cars, leading to new speculation that Apple is planning to build a car. I’m skeptical that Apple would get in the car business as we know it — but I had a crazy idea that somehow makes sense.
Here’s how they can do it: by getting rid of people.
Building and selling cars is an enormously expensive undertaking, and it’s hard to imagine exactly why apple would want to get into such a risky and competitive space. Sure, they have a strong brand identity and design ethos, but that’s about it. I think if they’re going to actually go through all the pain of getting into the car biz, it would have to be to do something pretty radical.
By radical, I mean something more radical than Tesla, which sort of fills the high-tech/design savvy space many would expect an Apple car to fill. Apple making a Tesla competitor isn’t enough. Even making an autonomous car, as many expect Apple would do, isn’t enough to really differentiate them. It needs to be something bigger, something more unexpected. I’d even say something more ‘disruptive’ if doing so wouldn’t make me want to punch myself in the face.
Let’s think about how Apple dealt with other existing markets. Back in the ‘70s, they put personal computers in a friendly plastic case and made them accessible to anyone. They popularized (via Xerox) an entirely different way of interacting with computers when the Macintosh came out. For the iPod, they came into the portable music player space with a well-designed product and an entire associated ecosystem to distribute music. The iPhone completely re-wrote the default look and way we all use cellular phones.
Apple fails when they try to make something to fit into existing markets without really changing things. Like their stillborn game console, Pippin, or all those boring beige Mac variants they cranked out in the mid-90s.
So if they’re going to make a car, it needs to be a revolutionary new take on cars, and with it will come a whole new infrastructure to work with this new sort of car.
It just won’t be for humans. At all.
You heard me. The Apple car will have no seats, and no provision for people at all. It won’t have windows. Or a radio. You won’t ride in it.
What it will have is a Tesla-style ‘skateboard’ chassis containing batteries and an electric motor, all the sensors and electronics needed to be fully autonomous, and a nice, big cargo area about the size of a pickup truck bed.
The idea behind this Apple Unmanned Car is one that I’ve thought about before — the realization that an autonomous car will be the first actual robot that most people will own. We’re getting very close to the point where people just aren’t needed for an autonomous car to drive, and that concept changes the very idea of what a car is. Why do we need a vehicle to take us to run errands when the vehicle could potentially handle those errands for us on its own?
This is where the whole ecosystem idea comes in, like Apple did with online music. In this case, partnerships with businesses would be established so, say, the Whole Foods (I know who’ll buy these first) grocery store chain becomes ‘Apple Car Ready.’ That means that you can simply order your food online and tell your Apple Car to go pick it up and bring it home to you.
The car drives to the nearest Whole Foods, alerts the store when it’s there, opens its cargo door, lets some surly teen load up your way, way overpriced groceries, and then heads back home to you, sending you an alert to your phone when it’s parked in your driveway.
All kinds of businesses could be partners, and it wouldn’t take much on their end to set up; just some procedures and a little software so the Apple Cars can announce when they’re ready. You could give your car a regular scheduled run to the CVS to get your medication, or to the liquor store to get your other medication. The car could pick up packages from the post office, or you could even use the car to courier packages to any address within the car’s user-set range. Small businesses could buy fleets of 5-10 of these and be able to offer deliveries without hiring drivers (a mixed blessing, I know).
Once you start thinking about it, there’s all kinds of uses possible. Say your only car is an old bugeye Sprite, but you need to get some lumber. The Apple Car can go to Home Depot for you. Say you want to take your Sprite camping — tell your Apple Car to follow you as you drive to the coast (maybe stopping to recharge the Apple Car at dinner), and when you get there you could sleep in it like a little camper.
The car could take commands from an iPhone app or even direct verbal commands using Apple’s well-known Siri technology. There would be web APIs so you can order something from a store online and immediately send the instructions and directions to the car. The car would have cameras you could watch from your phone to confirm what you want is in the cargo bay, and see where the car is going.
I’m thinking the Apple Car would probably start at around $7500-$10,000 or so. It would primarily use a charging/docking station at its home base, but it should be able to recharge (at least initially with human help to plug in) at any charging station.
My 10-minute design is, of course, really crude, but I think the basic streamlined oblong concept would work — the big goal is to have enough cargo space to be useful. Jonny Ive I’m sure can make it sexy. It wouldn’t weigh much, so the range could be pretty damn good — I don’t see why 300 or so miles isn’t possible, right?
And, since it has no people inside it, it doesn’t have to be crash tested or have airbags or anything — just pedestrian impact protection and the usual set of lights and indicators.
Sure, there’s issues to overcome — how do you insure it, the almost certainty that people will steal them, all that — but that’s the case with anything. I still think it’s a compelling idea, and one that Apple can not just pull off — but maybe the only way Apple can even justify getting into the car — or close to car — business at all.
With an unmanned Apple Car, you offload all the boring, repetitive, tedious driving to the car — and you don’t have to tag along, uselessly. Hell, you could even be out driving a fun car in a fun place in a fun way while your errand-robot was taking care of all the bullshit. It’s an autonomous car that has the potential to not take driving time away from you, but actually give you more, better driving time.
Autonomous cars are pretty much transportation robots as it is. If Apple is serious about building cars, they should look past the traditional use and find the essence of what makes an autonomous car really great: you don’t need to be in it.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.