Over the past several months, the main question surrounding Apple’s so-called “iCar” has switched from “will they, or won’t they?” to “when will it show up?” Official details are sparse and often misleading, but at this point, we’re nearly certain Apple will pry open its war chest to jump head-first into one of the automotive industry’s many pools. Below is everything we know about Apple’s vehicular project.
The smoking guns
Apple isn’t developing a car from scratch; instead, it’s working on fine-tuning autonomous technology.
“We’re focusing on autonomous systems,”company CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg. “It’s a core technology that we view as very important.” He added the company’s research effort is “probably one of the most difficult AI projects to work on.”
The tech giant wants to get involved in shaping regulation, too. In December, a letter from Steve Kenner, Apple’s director of product integrity, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was discovered. It offers “comments on the proposed Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” and it contains Apple’s suggestions for how to best “protect the traveling public and keep up with the pace of innovation.”
“We’ve provided comments to the NHTSA because Apple is investing heavily in machine learning and autonomous systems,” Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said. “There are many potential applications for these technologies, including the future of transportation, so we want to work with NHTSA to help define the best practices for the industry.”
Surprisingly, the Cupertino-based tech giant is becoming increasingly open about its automotive ambitions. It received a permit to test self-driving cars from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in April. Shortly after, a white Lexus RX450h equipped with enough sensors, cameras, and radars to power a nuclear submarine was spotted exiting an Apple facility. Coincidence? We think not.
Apple quickly resorted to industrial omertà and chose not to comment on the prototype. In a second letter, however, the company called upon its home state to toughen its policy on testing self-driving cars on public roads. It believes California should require companies to hand over more data to government officials, which could help it catch up with rivals such as Google and Uber that have been developing self-driving cars for much longer. Apple is hardly in a leadership position, unless it’s become very, very good at hiding prototypes.
Executives also asked for more details about the use of safety drivers during autonomous testing on public roads. In addition, they believe the requirements that dictate the kinds of cars companies are allowed to test should be loosened.
What could the iCar look like?
Motorists in the market for Apple’s automobile shouldn’t hold their breath. Realistically, Apple won’t become a full-fledged car manufacturer like General Motors and Ford — at least not in the foreseeable future. However, the company has some of the industry’s top minds — including a few former Tesla employees — developing a modular self-driving platform that it will be able to sell to car and truck manufacturers or to customers. Imagine being able to retrofit your 250,000-mile Toyota Tercel with a full suite of autonomous technology.
Apple won’t build a car, but it’s fun to think about what an iCar could look like. Last year, Motor Trend sat down with automotive and industrial designers at the ArtCenter College of Design’s Hillside Campus in California to gather insight on what the iCar could look like, and received mixed responses from both tech and automotive reporters worldwide. Online network ClickMechanic has a few ideas of its own, too, designboom reported. The collective has taken some of Apple’s most iconic products, past and present, and used them as inspiration for the future vehicle.
For their iCar Macintosh, for example, ClickMechanic took the “beige, plastic-like feel of the computer as well as its big, square, and angular features to create a true retro automobile.” As for the iCar G3, which is based upon the iMac G3, that rendering boasts “rounded edges and visible motors seen through the back.” Or, there’s the iCar Power, which “lends the same anodized aluminum alloy and delivers a powerful, sturdy, and industrial-looking vehicle — ideal for transporting heavy loads.”
Could Apple design powertrains?
Apple’s entry into the automotive industry could spawn a few distinct, unusual features. Self-driving technology and streamlined user interfaces are both good bets, but the tech company might also try to latch onto the electric revolution. Sources believe Apple is developing a battery like nothing we’ve seen before.
A report claims Apple may be working with a South Korean manufacturer to develop cylindrical lithium-ion batteries with hollow centers. Why hollow? Modern batteries generate a lot of heat due to the chemical reactions taking place; a hollow design increases air flow, which dramatically improves cooling. This reduces the need for additional cooling devices, making the units lighter, simpler, and perhaps even cheaper to build over time.
The South Korean firm has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Apple, so at this time its identity is unconfirmed. However, an application filed to the European Patent Office tells us a company called Orange Power is exploring hollow battery technology, and its stable of 33 employees meshes well with Apple’s reticent nature.
Could Apple join forces with an established automaker?
We’ve heard rumors claiming Daimler, the parent company of both BMW and Mercedes-Benz, is in talks with Apple to co-develop or manufacture the iCar, but German newspaper Handelsblatt claims the negotiations have dried up. Apparently, Apple’s preference for storing vehicle data in the iCloud was a major sticking point for the automakers, both of which have recently put wireless security and data protection at the forefront. The rumors that claimed Apple was on the brink of buying British sports car manufacturer McLaren were also false.
“There wasn’t a bid from Apple. They visited. We talked. We talked about what they did. We talked about what we did. They toured. It never matured to a definitive proposition,” McLaren CEO Mike Flewitt told Reuters.
How else can Apple expand into the automotive industry?
In a way, Apple is already a player in the auto industry. Millions of motorists use the company’s CarPlay software, which overrides a manufacturer’s native infotainment system and puts iOS directly in the dashboard of countless new and late-model cars. According to Reuters, the company was also in talks with companies that manufacture electric vehicle charging stations, though detailed information regarding the negotiations hasn’t been made public.