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Apple Car Exclusive: Experts Look at What Could Be a Game-Changer

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 14-04-2016 Kim Reynolds

Exploring the potential impact of Apple's Project Titan.

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It’s a moment we’ve all had with an Apple product. When the ordinary awkwardness between you and an electronic device becomes a relationship between you and a friend. Mine happened way back when I used an early Compaq computer. The keyboard clacked. You typed things that looked like C:\>find /V into DOS. And stories extruded across a murky screen in a green, constipated font. Then a friend let me use this thing called a Macintosh while she was away. I slowly circled my right hand to get used to its strange, plastic clicker-box.

Suddenly, the screen blinked “Hello.” In script.

I’m not sure if I said hello back, but I might have. Encounter by encounter, Apple has woven a series of obtuse electronic tools into the fabric of our lives. How many times has somebody held up their iPhone and said, “This IS my life!” The automobile of today is a Compaq computer. And Apple knows it.

Steve Jobs knew it way back in 2008, too, when Apple was at an early iPhone crossroads. What to focus on next? An electric car reportedly shared the short list with the maturing multitouch smartphone. Given Cupertino’s less formidable, 2008-era resources, Jobs’ final pick proved insanely right: Its iPhone-fueled piggybank is now a brain-boggling, $216,000,000,000. That’s BILLLLion dollars, as Carl Sagan used to eccentrically over-pronounce it, stashed all around the world. What’s that mean to paycheck-to-Taco Bell types like us? It’s enough to purchase all the stock of GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler. Combined. And then buy Detroit again. Some of Apple’s shareholders have been clamoring for Cook and company to snap up Tesla with its loose change. 

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And sometimes, Apple has nonchalantly jangled that change. In late 2013, Elon Musk met with Apple’s head of acquisitions and later huddled with Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, at a post-Oscars party. Adding to the warm visuals, Laurene Jobs returned her husband’s famously plateless Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, getting a Model S. But Musk doubts an Apple deal will advance his goal of creating a compelling mass-market EV. “I don’t currently see any scenario that would improve that probability,” he said.

As Apple’s code-named Project Titan has inhaled Silicon Valley’s brightest car brains, it’s left enemies swirling in its wake. The tug-of-war has grown tense with Tesla, with Apple’s rumored $250,000 signing bonuses and Musk’s famous, “We always jokingly call Apple the ‘Tesla Graveyard.’ If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple. I’m not kidding.” At a recent press dinner in Palo Alto, I sat next to an executive with a German brand who heads an SV tech center. “We’re battling to hang onto people,” he said after a few drinks. “Recently, we actually hired somebody back from Apple. It felt like a victory.” An estimated 1,000 people are thought to be working at an Apple complex in Sunnyvale, California, according to AppleInsider. Operating under an apparent shell name, “SixtyEight Research,” employees have supposedly been told to turn around their Apple name badges (which already have their Apple logos deleted).

And then there’s the autonomous rumors. Apple has pored over the fine points of self-driving regulation with the California DMV. It’s supposedly negotiated use of the nearby GoMentum Station (the repurposed Concord Naval Weapons facility that’s now the nation’s largest secure autonomous-focused test site).

Early sightings of a camera-festooned Dodge Grand Caravan sparked speculation that the van was actually an autonomous prototype. Apple made a rare comment to quell the chatter: wrong, everybody. They’re just compositing their own version of Street View for Apple Maps. So maybe the car isn’t a minivan. Then what is it?

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In September 2015, the car was allegedly raised to “committed project” status with a 2019 release date, presumably meaning its design completion. But after a program review, Ive “expressed his displeasure.” Reportedly, it’s not moving fast enough. The program’s in disarray. Its goals are unclear. (Meanwhile, management’s been accused of unrealistic targets). Ive froze the hiring spree that was projected to spiral toward 1,800, AppleInsider heard. And program head, Steve Zadesky—6 years with Apple after a stint with Ford—resigned, though it’s said to actually be for personal reasons.

Ive, the world’s most celebrated industrial designer, is the Cupertino Car Czar. Once tempted by a Royal College of Art’s automotive class, he instead chose industrial design at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University) and later became Jobs’ right hand. And what does he drive? A Bentley Mulsanne and an Aston Martin DB4. His design co-conspirator, Marc Newson, penned Ford’s 1999 021C concept for J Mays and curiously also owns an Aston Martin, a 1929 Bugatti, a ’50s Ferrari, and a Lamborghini Miura. (Another Apple designer, Julian Hönig, worked at Lamborghini.) These are impeccable-taste, Goodwood-attending, genuine car guys. And Newson, for one, has a dim view of current automotive design. Per a Wall Street Journal interview, “There were moments when cars somehow encapsulated everything that was good about progress. But right now we’re at the bottom of a trough.”

To get a higher vantage point on all this, we traveled to the hills above Pasadena, California. The ArtCenter College of Design’s famous Hillside Campus is a giant beam-and-glass shoe box designed by Craig Ellsworth, dropped in an arroyo above the Rose Bowl. Here, childlike scribbles flower to sophisticated artistry. Within is a curriculum that’s so influential that it’s essentially become the international epicenter of automotive design. We’re at its far end, sprinkled around a table.

On my left is Stewart Reed, ArtCenter’s chair of transportation design who recently envisioned the bodywork of Peter Mullin’s unfinished Type 64 Bugatti. Tim Huntzinger, professor in graduate transportation systems and design, has worked for Fisker, Rivian, and Daqri, an L.A. augmented reality company. Tim Brewer, a faculty member and an inventor of the first mouse scroll wheel. Di Bao is a Chinese national specializing in interiors and now interns with Volkswagen. Akash Chudasama, a recent grad student with an aerospace engineering degree, has interned at JPL. On my right is Garrett DeBry, who’s intrigued by personal mobility and would become our Apple Car designer of record, folding the group’s ideas together and placing them in his own imaginative envelope to create the images you see here.

Pencil Man: Our designer was ArtCenter grad student Garrett DeBry, seen here sketching during our brainstorming discussion.

Pencil Man: Our designer was ArtCenter grad student Garrett DeBry, seen here sketching during our brainstorming discussion.
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OK, everyone—imagine Apple is our client. And we’re going to brainstorm what its car will be.

“My iPhone has become my social life and my career life,” Chudasama says. “I don’t really use this to make calls. I use it for everything else. So if they can make a telephone—something that’s been around a hundred years—part of your way of life, what will they do with a car?”

“You tell me,” I reply.

“It’ll be your entire way of life,” Chudasama says. “And probably also the walled garden that turns some people off but others want for the impeccable experience someone else has anticipated for you. Tesla is kinda there; the BMW i3 isn’t there yet, but aesthetics aside, it’s a really easy-to-use car, simple to get into its back seat.”

There’s immediate dissension. “I totally disagree,” Huntzinger says.

“The i3 is Windows. They’ve crammed too much functionality into the vehicle, so it actually gets in the way of the experience. The eucalyptus wood is cool, but if you count them, there are 35 different materials in your field of view.”

Reed takes the high ground. “I just got out of a meeting with a manufacturer who is now calling their designers ‘experience designers,’ ” he says. “Their team sounds like a movie crew: acoustics, haptics, interpreters. To me, that would be an Apple approach.”

How about car-sharing? Apple products have always been premium. You spend more to have them, and you prize their finish. Besides the obvious reason—saving money—why would you share your car if you wouldn’t share your phone?

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Stewart: “That’s a question we’ve spent 14 weeks discussing with another manufacturer—how do you share a premium product?”

Chudasama: “The car would be ownable if you want to own it, but the real value of the phone isn’t the hardware but in its apps. Traditionally your connection to a car is through its steering wheel; now it might be more about how the total transportation experience makes you feel.” Eyes turn to a sleek MacBook Pro on the table; you feel good without even touching it.

DeBry: “The advertisement for the iPod was a black silhouette jamming to music, and that sold the whole thing. A car that comes to mind was Volvo‘s YCC Concept that was designed by women for women. It even had a hole in its seat for a ponytail. That’s really anticipating use cases. The core experience of an Apple vehicle is that it’s as easy to use as possible.”

Might the famous Apple ease of use be particularly suited for countries with developing driver populations, such as China? “Owning a car in any city is a pain, so an Apple Car could make urban transit simpler, Huntzinger says. “With iPhones in the pockets of many non-Apple Car drivers (and pedestrians), the whole urban system could be communicating with itself.”

Reed taps the brakes on this thinking. “I feel many of us are getting too focused on the rise of urbanization,” he says. “Remember, the best-selling vehicle in the country is still a Ford F-150.” But an autonomous future could blur these lines; you could sleep on your way home or start to work on the way in.

DeBry: “People historically travel for about a half-hour—whether it’s by foot or horse or car. But an autonomous model could change that. Apple could sell this as giving you a half-hour of your life back. It’s a time machine, particularly valuable as careers become more immersive.” My caution not to get too optimistic about autonomy’s timeline proves futile.

Herding cats, I ask again: So what’s the Apple Car? Stewart: “It’s the old-time, really great family chauffeur who knows the family, knows your schedules.”

Chudasama: “It could be more of a tiny, mono-shaped minivan.” Minivan? “No, we’re talking about a premium mono-volume.” Sketches start to appear on the dry-erase board.

Brewer: “Sleek metal—the mono-volume doesn’t have to have those minivan stigmas.”

Reed: “And the future of automotive glass isn’t laminated safety glass. It’ll be in the realm of hard-coated polycarbonates that allow expansive glass surfaces for augmented or, as I prefer to call them, ‘merged-reality’ projections.”

Time to pin the group down. Going around the table: What would your Apple Car look like? “I would start from the inside out,” Bao says, “with usability coming first.”

Brewer: “What’ll be most striking will be the quality of its parting lines, how materials come together. The big gaps on current cars make them seem dated.”

Chudasama: “It’ll be a mobility device. A way of life. It won’t be taking cues from an animal or something. Rather, it would be honest to what it really is. It’s not faking its meaning.”

Huntzinger picks up on that. “Those haunches and big wheels are old memes we use just because people think they’re valuable,” he says.

Chudasama: “The new premium is ‘convenience’. We want our time back. That’s the most valuable thing we have.”

Huntzinger: “I think it’ll look like a blend of Toyota‘s Me.We concept and Marc Newson’s Ford 021C concept. There’s a trend toward super-organic forms—and some can be timeless, but in five years we’ll know exactly when they were made. Apple’s really good at finding ways to ride that line between exciting without having a timestamp on them.”

Reed: “The glazing would be beautiful, well-proportioned with some automotive cues that look sure-footed and capable, not cutesy. Approaching it will be like walking up to an amazing store in Tokyo, the way the door opens up and presents isn’t a door you grab but a roof that raises and you walk in.” DeBry is starting to sketch.

The response of most carmaking veterans to the Apple rumors has been one loud harrumph. Lighting up a La Libertad Robusto cigar, he puffs smoke and growls, “Cars are very complicated. These software guys will never figure out how to build them.” PayPal co-founder Elon Musk has. And in the same manner Google is expected to collaborate with Ford, Apple will probably contract it out. Last year, Tim Cook visited the BMW i3 plant in Leipzig, Germany, that’s pioneering the mass production of carbon-fiber chassis, and reps also toured Magna-Steyr, a contract builder of premium (sometimes aluminum) cars in Austria. Either way, it makes sense that Apple outsources the manufacturing intricacies overseas (iPhone/Foxconn-like), avoiding U.S. taxes that could take upward of a 40 percent bite from its overseas war chest.

“Well, maybe,” our archetypal veteran barks. “But,” as the stogie lolls between his molars, “Apple is used to fat profits. Car margins are paper-slim. They’d be crazy to build cars.” Apple’s margin was about 40 percent last year. But making smartphones is intensely competitive, too, and its $53.4 billion profit in 2015 reflects strategies that legacy car companies should study, not dismiss. However, we’re being presumptuous of the Apple Car’s business model.

ZipCar and Uber are the early breezes of a cyclone of shared use/ownership that’s readying to blow the industry’s spreadsheets right off their monitors. Replacing single-user ownership with a shared model could collapse your get-around costs. A recent Deloitte study projected our typical per-mile travel costs (that’s all-inclusive) dropping 70 percent for shared, fully autonomous vehicles. Meanwhile, a manufacturer that retains ownership could charge for all that way-greater use while simultaneously building far fewer cars. Among Apple’s notable hires is Rónán Ó Braonáin, who comes from Reviver, a company developing digital license plates and vehicle-to-vehicle networking. It’s been noted that shared use might need plates that identify both the car and its current driver.

Yet all this might be missing something bigger. Although making ever-more billions is surely motivating, many Cupertino watchers have been wondering if the Macintosh magic is fading since Jobs’ death. The iPad has slumped. The Apple Watch is, well, a nifty watch kinda thing. Android is slowly turning its bread-and-butter smartphone into a commodity—like soft drinks are commodities. Back when Jobs was romancing Pepsi’s John Sculley into being Apple’s CEO, he famously asked, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” For Cook and Ive, an Apple Car might be the answer to Steve Jobs’ question about themselves.

Hello, gentlemen.

Endless Possibilities: As new car models hit showrooms, physical screens can already be upward of three years outdated. Projected visuals and information are always state-of-the-art. © Provided by Motor Trend Endless Possibilities: As new car models hit showrooms, physical screens can already be upward of three years outdated. Projected visuals and information are always state-of-the-art.

Apple of Your Eyes: The Windshield

If the iPhone 6 screen is the Mona Lisa of multitouch, an automobile’s windshield and dash would be a blank Sistine ceiling. But what should it look like? Google has amassed its fortune by connecting search-related advertising to people sitting at their desks. Transplant that idea into a car, and it becomes the moving world as seen through Apple’s eyes.

Approaching the Apple Car with your phone or watch pre-positions the seat and mirrors. The climate control prepares your cabin temperature. Your music swells. The door rises. You climb in. The dash—smooth, featureless leather that notably lacks today’s electronic screens—suddenly brightens with projected displays. A Siri avatar greets you. “Hello. Any errands on our way to work, Bob?” You’re still a bit sleepy this morning, so you reply, “Starbucks.” Siri: “OK, I’ll call in your grande latte. But let’s go to the one on Fifth Street instead. There’s construction on our normal route.” The dash’s graphics are swipable and expandable with only the simplest instruments because electric drivetrains no longer need monitoring. You can even toss some graphics up onto the augmented windshield. Made of Corning’s thin automotive Gorilla glass, it’s wraparound to maximize the augmented field of view. “Siri, I have a lot of work today, so I’ll need to eat at my desk again. Any ideas?” Siri: “I sense that you’ve gained 4 pounds recently despite our going to the gym three days last week. Your Facebook friend Jill, who has similar tastes, liked a cucumber salad at the Blue Garden Cafe that’s right along our way. I’ll highlight it as we get close.” Beyond downloading entertainment from iTunes, the car will be a personal assistant. And one Apple might hope you adopt for your non-driving time, as well. An augmented reality “windshield” is among the most persistent Apple Car rumors and thought to be the likeliest part to survive if the rest of Project Titan is canceled. — Kim Reynolds

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