From a nearly bankrupt, completely irrelevant company back in 1996 through to having the most profitable quarter of any company in history at the end of 2014, Apple Inc., has managed to captivate and enthral fans around the world. Since its founding back on April 1, 1976, it has helped revolutionise the personal computer market, the personal music player market, the smartphone market and the tablet computer market.
According to an increasingly large number of sources and rumours, it’s about to revolutionise the automotive market too, with a brand-new, Apple-branded minivan-like code-named “Titan.”
Over the past few months, Apple has been reportedly hiring of several hundred employees to work at its Curpertino headquarters, on a brand-new project. While new hires at the tech giant may not be that unusual however, their area of expertise — automotive — is.
What’s more, Apple has reportedly been hiring employees from nearby Tesla Motors, offering 60 percent salary bumps and $250,000 signing bonuses to employees who leave the Californian electric automaker for 1, Infinite Loop. (We should note too however, that Tesla has itself been poaching employees from Apple, presumably to help program future smart functionality into its electric cars, and a two-way flow of employees between both companies seems to be taking place.)
That in itself isn’t worth an article on its own. When you combine it with the strange Apple-registered vehicles that have been spotted driving along the streets of towns and cities along the San Francisco Bay however, there’s certainly something going on at Apple that warrants column inches.
Minivans and rumours
Back at the start of this month, sightings of mysterious Dodge Minivans with unidentified X-shaped frames mounted on their roofs whipped several tech websites into a frenzy. While there was nothing special about the cars themselves, the X-shaped frame appeared to house numerous sensors and cameras — including what looks like LiDAR equipment — on each corner. Upon checking the registration details with the local DMV, local San Francisco Bay news channel KPIX confirmed that the Dodge Minivans were listed as being leased to Apple.
Apple isn’t talking to the press, but the vehicles themselves have been spotted on both east and west coasts of the U.S.
Yet just as quickly rumours surface talking of a Apple developing its own car — possibly even a self-driving, all-electric one — more measured voices point out that Apple couldn’t possibly be developing an electric car, self-driving or otherwise. They argue that as well as being outside of Apple’s area of expertise, Apple wouldn’t spend its time driving large minivans in public if it was trying to develop a super-secret new product.
Moreover, the same commentators point out, if those mysterious minivans fitted with elaborate sensors were to help Apple build a self-driving electric car, it would have needed to have applied for autonomous vehicle permits from the state of California. Which to date, it hasn’t.
If we had to guess, we’d suggest that the minivans which have been spotted in and around Silicon Valley are being used for something completely different: super-high resolution mapping software. With no comment from Apple however, it hast to remain just a theory.
The staff — and the money
So far, we’ve looked at the reasons why Apple isn’t working on a self-driving, all-electric car. But as with all rumours, there’s just enough proof to suggest that it is.
Some of that proof comes from Apple’s current round of hirings, its existing staff, and the tiny matter of Apple’s seemingly bottomless pit of cash.
As TheWallStreetJournal points out, Apple has been hiring a great number of automotive executives, including Johan Jungwirth, former president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz’ North America’s research and development team. Meanwhile, Apple CEO Tim Cook is rumored to have approved an ‘Apple Car’ project almost a year ago, putting Apple product design Vice President Steve Zadesky in charge of the new skunkworks project.
Zadesky too, has a background in automotive engineering, having previously worked for Ford.
To go into the entire list of staff with automotive backgrounds would simply be too exhaustive, but we can say that the automotive connection goes far beyond engineering. Even Apple’s executives are committed car fans with design guru Jony Ive a committed Bentley and Aston Martin owner. Meanwhile, joke-pulling Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of Internet software and services, happens to be on the board of Ferrari.
Then there’s Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. Unlike his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs, Cook seems happy to diversify Apple’s vision a little more. He’s expressed more of an interest in environmental and social issues than his predecessor, and seems more content with delegating control of Apple’s interests to his colleagues on the board than Jobs ever was.
The result? A wider, richer company, more willing to try new things. With Cook’s razor-sharp negotiation skills and specialisms in supply chain management, it’s conceivable too that an Apple-built car could use some shrewdly-acquired and carefully-chosen supply chains to ensure low outlay and high quality.
The intent and interest then is certainly there. But as anyone within the automotive industry will tell you, building a car from scratch is a costly business, even if you’re an automaker with years of experience.
Apple seems to have that problem sewn up too, thanks to more than $178 billion cash on hand at the end of last quarter. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the market cap of Tesla, GM and Ford combined. And while Apple doesn’t have the experience of any of those automakers, its massive reserves of money can buy that experience, or at least those with the experience.
Tesla, the enabler
If you’ve got this far, you’re probably sitting on the fence as we are. There’s compelling evidence to suggest both Apple is and is not developing its own car.
Yet whichever way you look at it, an Apple-built car has been made possible by one company and one company only: Tesla Motors.
In challenging the status quo in the automotive industry, the Californian electric automaker has proven several important things. Firstly, that it’s possible today to design, build, and sell a car without relying on years worth of automotive tradition. Moreover and more importantly for Apple, that it’s possible to design a modern car by using the same kind of design ethos and methodologies used in today’s modern computer hardware and software industry.
Secondly, Tesla’s ongoing battle with auto dealer associations across the U.S. for the right to sell direct to customers at its own Tesla-branded, Tesla-owned stores has proven that customers not only prefer to buy cars that way, but that the brand can benefit as a consequence.
(For those who don’t know, both Apple and Tesla stores were conceived by the same person, former GAP, Apple and Tesla marketing genius George Blankenship, who was hired by Tesla from Apple specifically to help it recreate an Apple-like retail experience for its Tesla Stores.)
Rather than take the brunt of the lengthy, complex legislative work itself, Apple could easily use Tesla’s business model as a foundation for its own automotive stores. Tesla is doing the ground work on which Apple could build its own camp in the future.
Without Tesla’s trailblazing attitude to car sales, it’s doubtful that the concept of an Apple-built car would have even made the headlines. Before Tesla, the automotive and technology world were simply too disparate. Too far apart.
Now however, a company has proven that software and hardware engineering practices can be used to build and design a car. That same company has proven that it is possible to market a car as a gadget, something more than a tool to get from point A to point B.
Tesla has fought its own battles, and is proving that a modern car company doesn’t need 100 years of history to build a modern car. It has tackled politicians, and it has even revolutionised the way we think about fuel.
And now, if Apple wants to, it can follow that path.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk once painted himself as the explorer, cutting down the branches of an overgrown path so that others in the automotive world could follow. But what if it’s not the automotive world following? What if it’s the tech world — and Apple instead?
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