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Bring On The All-Electric Apple iCar

The Asphalt Jungle

When I heard the rumors that computer behemoth Apple is developing an electric car, my initial thought was, "Yeah, right. Those cats don't know the first thing about building automobiles." Yet almost instantly, a wiser voice in my head spoke up: "Hey, that never stopped American Motors."

If the buzz is accurate, roughly five years from now you'll be able to stroll into your local Apple Store and, amid a backdrop of shiny iPad Heliums and iPhone 11s, climb into the cockpit of the all-new, all-electric Apple iCar. (Somehow "iAuto" sounds like a motivation, not a vehicle.) Naturally, having been shaped under the zealous gaze of Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president of design, the iCar will look like a museum piece of minimalist sculpture. Picture a large M&M's candy on skinny, low-rolling-resistance tires. The airy cockpit will be almost entirely lacking in buttons and switches, relying instead on a large touchscreen featuring Apple's CarPlay interface and Siri voice control. The cupholders will be the finest mankind has ever seen.

Just sitting inside the new iCar, you will feel happy, even euphoric. Running your fingertips over its sensuously curved, lovingly polished surfaces, you will experience an almost irresistible swell of desire. And then, just at the moment you convince yourself you really can't afford this beauteous new toy, an Apple Genius will demonstrate how easy it is to customize the big dashboard screen with that iPhone photo of your French bulldog. Five minutes later, you will drive off in your first iCar.

Sound ridiculous? Well, just a few years ago, plenty of pundits (me included) never imagined that little Tesla Motors—at the time a maker of an interesting but impractical and pricey Lotus-based electric sports car—could in one giant leap create an electric-powered luxury sedan that outperforms anything from the Big Three, not to mention Asia and Europe. Yet Tesla, despite its growing EV presence and sister company SpaceX's impressive spaceflight enterprises, is a mere pipsqueak compared with Apple. The House That Steve Jobs Built now has more cash on hand, some $178 billion as of the end of 2014, than NASA spent (in adjusted dollars) sending men to the moon. With a market cap of $750 billion, Apple is worth more than Ford, GM, Daimler, Peugeot, Fiat Chrysler, Renault, and VW combined. Bottom line: If Apple wants to build a new electric car, it unquestionably can build a new electric car. It just has to start writing checks.

Signs point to Apple doing just that. To enrich "Project Titan," as the electric-car program is known, Apple apparently poached so many engineers from A123 Systems, a Massachusetts-based maker of lithium-ion EV batteries, that the company filed a lawsuit. Tesla engineers are reportedly being tempted to jump ship with $250,000 signing bonuses and 60 percent pay increases (though CEO Elon Musk insists he's lost "very few" to Apple). Leading the Titan team is former Ford engineer Steve Zadesky, who holds roughly 90 patents and has an interesting connection with a company called Liquidmetal Technologies, which makes a nanophosphate metal that is said to be moldable like plastic. (How "Apple" is that?) Among other notable hires: Johann Jungwirth, former CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America. Apple's money is clearly talking.

With a market cap of $750 billion, Apple is worth more than Ford, GM, Daimler, Peugeot, Fiat Chrysler,
Renault, and VW combined.

Of course, if the future is indeed destined to include Apple Motors, the computer giant of Cupertino, California, will need more than brilliant engineering and design. It'll also require massive brick-and-mortar production and assembly facilities, and that's enough to give some industry veterans pause. Said former GM CEO Dan Akerson to The Detroit News: "If I were an Apple shareholder, I wouldn't be very happy. I would be highly suspect of the long-term prospect of getting into a low-margin, heavy-manufacturing business. The car industry, with regulatory and safety requirements, is harder than people realize. A lot of people who don't ever operate in it don't understand and have a tendency to underestimate." On the other hand, Apple is unlike any other company on Earth, a true industrial innovator that clearly has the wherewithal to make the "impossible" happen. One could easily imagine a manufacturing partner in China or elsewhere.

Here's another possible twist: Apple might build an iCar but never actually sell it. Sounds crazy, I know, but many following the story believe Apple might be preparing to
transform the business of driving the way that iTunes and the iPod forever changed music-buying and listening. What if you didn't actually own your iCar and instead you merely paid for it when you needed it? Insiders at Ford and Volkswagen have told me they expect a future in which "car sharing" becomes as natural as renting a bike at the beach—a sort of driverless Uber taxi in which customers locate, pay for, and unlock available nearby cars using their smartphones.

The key to such a business proposition, of course, is the software interface. To truly succeed, car sharing has to be as friendly and effortless as buying a song on iTunes. Apple has the resources to be the pioneer, to take that scary and huge first step and actually pull it off. What's more, doing so would mean that Apple would control the whole show, maintaining the closed, jealously guarded "ecosystem" business model on which the company has built its success. To drive an iCar in such a scenario, you would deal only with Apple. There would be no fern-infested showrooms, no fast-talking salespeople, no sketchy repair shops down the road. Just click and drive.

Here's one more clue that Apple is indeed headed into the auto business: Ive, Apple's design guru, loves cars. He owns a Bentley Mulsanne and an Aston Martin DB4, and every year he attends the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England. Moreover, he recently hired a good friend with some interesting credentials: superstar industrial designer Marc Newson, who designed the 1999 Ford 021C concept car and owns four vintage sports cars himself. Together, the pair has singled out American cars as examples of the "shit we hate." Said Newson in a 2014 story that appeared in Vogue: "It's as if a giant stuck his straw in the exhaust pipe and inflated them." Sounds like a gauntlet thrown down to me.

I won't be at all surprised to see an iCar coming down the road. It's just too challenging a project for Apple's core executives to resist. After all, the company has bushels of money, and the whole concept fits perfectly with CEO Tim Cook's grander ambitions of making the world a happier, more connected, and better-looking place. That said, I can't say I'm all that worked up about the iCar. I hear the one you really want is the iCar 2.