Apple probably isn't getting into the car business. At least not in the way we know it today. It's getting into the mobility business, where you dial up a ride on your smartphone, Uber-style, get to where you're going and move on with your life. No monthly payments, no insurance, no maintenance and repairs. That's what Apple could bring to the game, and it's obviously not alone.
After the last two weeks of news, exclusively composed of "leaks" and unnamed sources, Apple is obviously doing something big with Project Titan, the codename of its car-related project. It's poached battery and automotive engineers and executives, and put an estimated 200 people working on the project in an undisclosed location in the Valley.
That's led to a string of analysis and speculation about exactly what Apple is doing and how a company known for PCs, phones, and tablets could possibly survive in the traditional automotive space. It can't because it doesn't need to.
Ex-GM CEO Dan Akerson's comments about Apple having "no idea" what it's getting into were actually prescient, because he doesn't have a clue. Akerson is looking at building and selling cars from the traditional standpoint of an industry that's been optimizing, iterating, and churning them out for over 100 years. Unlike an iPhone, the profit margins are slim and the cost of doing business is massive. It doesn't matter Apple has nearly $180 billion in the bank, a market cap that's triple the size of Toyota, and is spending money any way it can.
So why would Apple get into the car biz? Because it's changing. It's no longer about selling, it's about providing a service.
Most cars are parked 90 percent of the time. Aside from being horribly inefficient and taking up space, it's also a complete waste of cash. Apple and Google, along with Uber and every other ride-sharing service, recognize this and are moving beyond the traditional idea that a person buys car, the person drives car, the person maintains, insures, and fills it up, and then sells it. Most people only care about getting where they're going, and to Silicon Valley's mind that doesn't involve owning anything.
That opens up a new world of mobility, where you don't need to buy one car and use it for multiple purposes. You might pay a subscription, use a low-powered electric vehicle to get around town, a larger car for commutes, and maybe an SUV for a weekend of camping or a sports car for a Sunday blast down the coast. It's not an original idea, but it's finally picking up steam.
There's no need for Apple – or Tesla or Google – to hassle with dealers and their political protectionists. There's no need for expansive, expensive retail outlets, and the traditional service model could be completely upended. The fundamentals of vehicle manufacturing could change, with a focus on simplified electric drivetrains and modular platforms, similar to what Tesla is doing with the Model S and X – along with the forthcoming Model 3 and its variants – make the right car for the right application rather than the one-size-fits-all approach most people struggle with.
And this is all before we talk about autonomy.
The chances of Apple's car being fully autonomous when it's supposedly set to arrive in 2020 are slim. That reported date is when several automakers estimated self-driving cars would start landing on the market a couple of years ago. Nearly all of them have walked those statements back because of a host of technology and cost issues.
Right now, Google's autonomous car can't drive in the snow or the rain or anywhere vision is obscured. It can't even drive somewhere that hasn't been painstakingly mapped with cameras and LIDAR. That equipment is still expensive, but the prices are beginning to drop, and while the technology will continue to evolve, it won't be at the pace to make an autonomous car utopia in five year's time. And that's before the regulators really get involved.
But put aside self-driving cars – or even semi-autonomous tech – and their larger implications and you're still left with a business model that's outmoded for the vast majority of the population. Apple, Google, Uber, and others are doing what comes natural to the Valley – seeing a problem and building a solution. What ultimate form it will take to transform the auto industry is still in question, but Apple has the talent, the branding, and the design chops to give it a go. It's something that Steve Jobs dreamt about and the opportunity is finally here.
Illustration: Sam Woolley