When I first heard rumors about Apple’s alleged development of a car, I disregarded them without thinking. The idea that the company would stretch its focus so far away from its current line of computer software and hardware products seemed ridiculous, and happened to overlap with countless jokes over the years about the hilariousness that would ensue if Apple entered this, that, or another market.
My head jerked to attention however when the Wall Street Journal recently added its weight to the rumors, giving a code name “Titan” for the project, and asserting that there are hundreds of employees already working on the team.
Even in the wake of this revelation I clung to my skepticism, sensing that it would simply be too “out there” for Apple to tackle the automotive market. I agreed with reasons cited by folks such as Jean-Louis Gassée, who dismisses the idea as fantastical based on comparatively low profits, challenging customer-service obligations, and the absence of Moore’s Law-style advances over time in automotive technologies.
But today’s report from Jordan Kahn of 9to5Mac, listing a variety of automotive-industry experts who are now working for Apple, has really got me doubting my earlier dismissiveness.
What does it mean that Apple has hired a significant number of people with expertise in the auto industry? To me it means that they are either making a car, or that they are making a product that they know will uniquely leverage the abilities of people familiar with cars.
Personally, I’ve flipped over to being cautiously optimistic that the Apple car will become a reality. My first inclination was to worry that it represented a deparature of focus for Apple, and that it would mean stretching their limited resources even thinner. But the 9to5Mac story drives home that a lot of the expertise required to pursue this dream, if that’s what they do, can be hired from outside the pool of software and hardware engineers that Apple has typically employed. I think it’s reasonable, for example, to be optimistic that a drive-train engineer’s efforts are not being wasted by working on a car instead of a MacBook Pro’s cooling fans.
Putting aside the significant effort of designing, manufacturing, marketing, distributing, and servicing a line of Apple-branded vehicles, having these products exist and in use by even a modestly large number of customers would offer some interesting benefits to Apple. Particularly, I’m curious to see how they might leverage the technological ownership of a whole car to serve their ambitions in mapping and navigation.
I thought it was a big loss for Apple when Google acquired Waze, the crowd-sourced navigation service that uses mobile phones to collect traffic data. Since then, I’ve been hoping that Apple might eventually offer a similar solution. With a suitably pre-rigged Apple car, the amount and quality of data collection might leapfrog even Waze’s impressive installed base. Imagine even 100,000 Apple cars in the US, equipped with built-in cameras on four sides, transmitting GPS and environmental graphics (anonymously and with user consent!) to Apple HQ. It might finally give Google something to worry about (assuming Google’s own cars haven’t already captured as much interest).
These rumors have fueled an enormous amount of speculation outside of Apple about whether or not they should build a car. Regardless of whether they do so or not, it’s clear from the amount of automotive-related hiring they have done that a great deal more speculation has probably been done inside of Apple, by minds that are now suited to make constructive decisions about whether Apple will build a car, what kind of car it will be, and when it will be available. I for one can’t wait to see what comes of it all.