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Why Tim Cook Would Build an Apple Car

The wildest tech rumor this week comes from little substance, but somehow manages to ignite the imagination: According to Business Insider, an unsolicited Apple employee emailed to say that a group at Apple is working on a project that would “give Tesla a run for its money.”

For this to be true, it means that an Apple employee either a) broke Apple’s strict rules for secrecy in some obvious way that makes Business Insider believe the email actually came from an Apple employee, or b) that it was some sort of vague and intentional leak from Apple, sent straight to Business Insider.

Both scenarios, while not impossible, strain credibility. First, it’s hard to imagine that an Apple employee would risk losing their job for such little apparent gain, especially if they’re working on a project that is apparently so cool. And second, it seems like an intentional leak might contain something a little less insipid than claiming an Apple project will “give Tesla a run for its money.”

Granted, it appears as if the email was intended to support the idea that Tesla employees are jumping ship to work at Apple (while Tesla has hired away 150 Apple employees). In which case, the very act of alluding to a secret project and name-dropping Tesla seems like one of the more stupid things a presumably “very smart” Apple employee would bother to do.

The Apple Car Rumor Has Legs

Still, the initial rumor became a catalyst for The Mac Oserver’s Bryan Chaffin, who asked around to some unnamed sources who might be in positions to have a good idea whether Apple is working on a car. Plus, he found that Apple appears to have attracted some Tesla employees that have car-oriented experience, which seems obvious if you’re poaching a new employee from a car company.

But…now he’s a believer. According to Chaffin, the chances that Apple is working on an actual car is close to 100 percent.

To some people who know Apple only as the digital tech gadget maker, this seems like a project wildly removed from Apple’s core competence. I don’t think it is. I think Apple believes it can build most anything — and the company certainly has the cash to fund most any project.

Imagine Apple CEO Tim Cook. The guy is obviously freakishly smart, able to guide Apple to be able to produce highly complex devices with massive supply chains — under intense scrutiny — that can nonetheless be manufactured in the tens of millions and delivered globally on the same day.

The sheer scale of Apple’s products, coupled with their complexity and the worldwide markets they go into, must surely result in some measure of confidence that a company with a US$700 billion market cap could produce its own car.

So, could Apple build its own car? Without a doubt.

The question is, would Apple want to?

Back in 2013, Apple clarified how it decides to do things — which products and features it decides to deliver. Apple still has a web page that shows off a video and notes that there are a thousand “no’s” for every “yes.”

Apple says that it designs for people. That it wants to create products that make life better.

Cook has been saying for years — in various ways — that Apple chooses to build products that delight and impact people’s lives. The marketing of Apple’s products supports that, too, particularly with the iPad, but also with new products.

In fact, at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference this week, Cook just said that there has not yet been a single smartwatch that has changed the way people live their lives. He then noted that, at Apple, that’s their objective: “We want to change the way you live your life.”

What Better Impact Than a Better Car?

I think Apple limits its thinking by what’s most important, not by what’s quickly possible. And clearly, Cook is looking for products that make life simpler, easier, and more delightful.

When you pair that straightforward goal with Cook’s apparent passion for a more environmentally friendly Apple — case in point, the recent $850 million investment in solar energy to power Apple’s operations in California — the notion of building an electric car starts to fit into Cook’s Apple.

Not only do cars have massive room for “improvement” around design, simplicity, and efficiency, there is also great room for user-based improvements. In 10 years, will Apple CarPlay on the dash of a new Ford or GM be enough for Cook? A natural extension of Apple’s continuity among products could go to a place where people and families still spend an insane amount of time — inside of a car. Why stop at work, stop at the home, or stop at your pocket or wrist? If better communication is important to the world, how important is better transportation?

A car represents a starting point for a very worthy challenge for Apple. Could Apple make cars safer? More energy-efficient? Quite possibly.

Better yet, would Apple’s maestro of industrial design, Jony Ive, want to design a car? Come on, who wouldn’t want to design a car? I would jump at the chance to build something so iconic, so culturally important.

If Cook has any interest in making Steve Jobs’ dent in the universe any bigger — if not putting a giant bandage over the fossil-fuel guzzling world we live in that results in political upheaval over the control of non-renewable natural resources — why not start with a better car?

At the very least, it’s easy to imagine Cook showing a willingness to fund the research and development of such an effort.

So is the rumor true or not?

I hope it’s true.

Chris Maxcer

TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.

4 Comments

  • Historically, few companies enter completely new and mostly unrelated markets and succeed. The leap from computers and phones to automobiles is huge despite the fact that today’s vehicles are more digital than ever. But…if any company could pull it off it would probably be Apple…if only due to its fiercely loyal customer base.

    That aside, Chris how much do you know about electric vehicles? Specifically, how much do you know about the massive pollution caused by the mining and refinement of rare earth elements (e.g. graphite) required for batteries?

    Laptop and mobile phones batteries require about 100 and 15 grams of graphite respectively. By comparison the average electric car contains about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of graphite and hybrid cars consumer about 10 kilograms. There is an estimated 10 to 30 times more graphite in a Lithium-ion battery than Lithium.

    Electric cars, windmills, etc don’t solve the energy and pollution problems we have today. They simply displace the issues to regions of the world that are out of sight and out of mind. Today’s electric alternatives put a modern spin on NIMBY. Ask a Prius or Tesla owner here in the U.S. if they’d mind having a graphite processing plant in their neighborhood. A) they’d have no clue what that means, and B) once it’s explained to them, they’d say no.

    But wait, there’s more….Tesla is looking to build the largest battery production plant in the world right here in the States….rumored to be looking at Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico or Texas where the governments are still desperate enough and ignorant enough to allow such a destructive plant in its citizens’ back yards. The raw materials, another environmental nightmare would likely be sourced from mines in Canada, Minnesota and Idaho.

    If we’re going to seek alternatives to fossil-fueled products, let’s solve the problem not simply displace it.

    • Lots of great points here, josephmartins — I certainly agree that most people don’t realize that batteries are environmentally intense products. (As for graphite, I’m clueless to the environmental impact of graphite specifically.)

      I don’t see the potential benefits of a better Apple car in a new world fleet of electric cars necessarily . . . but both vision and pressure in many other ways.

      For instance, there are some pretty efficient diesel engines and cars that could be made and delivered to the U.S. . . . but aren’t. Apple brings intense scrutiny to its decisions, which also opens up other approaches for competitors. I think that Apple, ironically, encourages more breaks from tradition in its competitors than it does itself sometimes.

      Right now, there are cars that can easily shut themselves off at stoplights, which has been proven to save gas — but few vehicles use this technology yet. Apple is the sort of company that would find a way to make this not only work more seamlessly . . . they would make customers comfortable with it, want it, and pay for it. The end result? Less fuel burned.

      Overall, I think spreading the reliance of natural resources is a good thing — might that reduce the high cost of war and manipulation around the world? Hard to say. There’s more going on than money and oil that causes conflict and environmental travesty, that’s for sure.

      I totally agree with your point about the risk of "displacing" problems with new ones. I get the impression that Cook actually cares, and I hope that he uses his power and influence to do the right things. And that, along the way, our environmentalists look at the entire supply chain over a period of time to determine efficiency and manage to communicate the results.

      Complicated stuff, though. If given the choice of driving 75 mlles per hour and burning more fuel instead of driving 55 or 60 . . . I’m inclined to drive faster and be less efficient. Anyway, lots of places for improvement — and Apple is a company that can become a catalyst to help spur innovation all around it, which is why I’m keen on seeing an Apple car in the future.

      • Here’s one of the many articles about the pollution and destruction caused by mining rare earth elements (at least China): http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1350811/In-China-true-cost-Britains-clean-green-wind-power-experiment-Pollution-disastrous-scale.html

        China has begun shutting down rare earth mines due to the environmental impact opening the door to competition. "Innovators" such as Musk, left unchecked, will bring that impact stateside.

        And I do agree with you and hope Apple will at least serve as a catalyst for new research because the current research is largely little more than problem displacement.

        By the way, regarding the cars that shut themselves off at stoplights….wouldn’t it be fantastic if the municipalities actually reprogrammed their lights to be more effective, efficient and responsive? Paired with intelligent ignition systems it’s a winning combination.

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