The Pros and Cons of a Proprietary Apple Car Charger

I've been mulling car chargers, sparked in part by a Reuters report that Apple has been chatting up car charging companies. There are any number of reasons Apple could be talking to them: anything from wanting to pump them for information to partnering to even becoming suppliers for Apple.

That topic has been well-discussed, but it got me wondering if there should be a standard for car chargers, either voluntary or mandated. This is pertinent because Apple has a penchant for developing proprietary technologies—think Lightning or the 30-Pin Dock—but I have mixed feelings about Apple taking that approach for car charging.

Apple Car

If you listened to Friday's episode of TMO's Daily Observations that may surprise you. I spent much of the episode arguing with my colleague John Martellaro about exactly this topic. He argued that Apple would adopt an industry standard and I was practically apoplectic, but that was because while Apple (perhaps) should adopt a standard, I don't think the company will.

Instead, I expect Apple to do something similar to what Tesla has done, and that's use a proprietary charging technology that is superior to what the rest of the industry is doing. At best, I expect Apple to also follow Tesla's model and develop an adapter that would allow Apple Car owners to use the slower-charging infrastructure the rest of the electric-vehicle uses when forced to do so.

To be fair, Tesla is a great example of why adopting a standard technology has drawbacks, and mandating a standard through legislation has even more. Tesla cars can charge much more quickly on Tesla-owned car charging stations than competing cars. If the industry adopted a standard, or was mandated to do so, it would hobble innovation—like that developed by Tesla—and keep us mired in a lowest-common-demoninator world where technology stands still for the sake of interoperability.

This is precisely why I think efforts by the European Union to force mobile phone makers to all use the same connector are nonsense. The standard the EU settled on is microUSB, which sucks compared to Lightning, and will suck even worse in comparison to whatever Apple develops to replace Lightning while the rest of the mobile device market is still wallowing about with microUSB.

But there's a big difference between electric cars and smartphones. For one thing, even when using microUSB or Lightning, one is still plugging into a USB port. That puts a standard into the mix that makes it trivial to charge up your device.

Cars, on the other hand, need infrastructure many orders of magnitude more complex and expensive. I fear that the last thing we need is to have three or more competing charging stations set up hither and yon. Doing so is inefficient and will slow adoption of electric vehicles. It will also make it more difficult for governments (local, regional, and federal) to ease that adoption by providing public facilities for charging.

It's a tricky issue for a company like Apple to tackle, and it's one with no one single answer. Apple could partner with Tesla to use that company's technology and charging stations, or Apple could work with Tesla and the rest of the industry to open source any advancements they develop so that the whole industry (and the public) could benefit. Apple could also adopt the lowest-common-demoninator the rest of the industry uses.

Lastly, Apple could go its own way—like Tesla—and deploy its own network of Apple-owned charging stations, while providing adapters that allow users to slum it with the unwashed masses and their standard-based stations. Apple has the money to do so, and it would be utterly in keeping with Apple's track record of using such advantages to compete on experience.

I'm not sure that would be the best thing for the world at large, but it's probably what Apple will do.