Why and When Could We See an Apple Electric Car?

Image credit: Chevy Bolt, General Motors

Building and selling an electric car ain't like dusting crops, kid. It takes a lot of engineering expertise and years of work. Here's what I think the justification, scenario and timeline would be.


Let's say that Apple is exploring the idea of making an electric car. We seem to have some pretty good evidence that Apple is looking at the idea from a high level: "Apple Is Working on a Car." But that doesn't mean that Apple is going to "give Tesla a run for its money" in 2017. Or even 2019. This will take time.

There are two questions to be asked. First, why would Apple want to get into the electric car business at all? Secondly, if it does, how long would it take?

The Why

Most of us have been in a job interview in which the interviewer asks, "Where do you want to be in five years?" Apple has to ask itself the same kind of question. Recently, Apple's Eddy Cue said:

So when he [Jobs] came back—I had the pleasure of working with him for 17 years very closely every day—we wanted [...] what we were building to last for 100 years or 200 years.

When you think like that, it's sensible to ask where the company should be 10 or 20 years down the road.

Another consideration is Tim Cook's recent statement about corporate responsibility.

... we know, in Apple, that climate change is real. And our view is that the time for talk has passed, and the time for action is now. And we've shown that with what we've done. And so we're now running all of our data centers, which require lots of energy for those of you that understand data centers, all of them are run off renewable energy.

If Apple can make contributions in solar energy to help power a great Apple electric car, it would mean the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine.

Secondly, Apple is unlikely to believe that that it can quickly outpace the R&D efforts of the major auto companies. Detroit as well as European car companies have spent big bucks on hybrid and electric technology. One of the best looking prospects out there is the new Chevy Bolt (a little brother to the Chevy Volt.) The Bolt is notable because this car will be much more affordable than a US$70,000 Tesla S and still have a, claimed, 200 mile (320 km) range.

All electric Chevy Bolt is going into production. Image credit: General Motors


Rather, Apple may feel that, given their experience with current car companies and CarPlay, it's better for Apple to put together its own unique integration of software and car hardware rather than try to trickle in from the outside. That could be a valuable approach.

As for Apple getting into the car business at all, one could callously sit back and suggest that Apple stick to what it knows. But that's not how Apple thinks. If Apple can solve a major customer life-style, security and safety problem, make a contribution to the state-of-the-art and the planet's health, and make a boatload of money doing it, chances are it will. After all, Apple didn't know much about cell phones in 2005. Cars are an even larger area for great innovation.

The When

For a company to build a car for the first time is fraught with difficulties. Even Tesla, doing well now, got off to a rocky start financially. For auto manufacturers, there's a boatload of U.S. Government regulations, not just for safety, but also all manner of technical details with road certification and even limits on how bright the headlights can be—and their placement.

That means innovation comes inside the car in terms of energy management and passenger services like Internet and the monitoring of the car's well-being. Another factor is security. There's been a lot of discussion lately (but no identified incidents) where hackers can break into current-day cars, via Bluetooth, and take over the car. Even force a crash. (IThat was shown in a movie.)

If Apple can bring to bear its enormous software engineering talent to make a modern electric car more secure than the competition, Apple will achieve the same goal it did with the iPhone: customer trust.

Even so, Apple has a lot of work to do. It takes years to learn about quality control in manufacturing, the trade-off with cost and quality of a proper suspension, crush zones, autonomous/GPS driving safety, ergonomics, HVAC and so on. I would think that it would take Apple seven to 10 years from now before models could hit the market.

However, the payoff for Apple in the long run could be enormous. Tesla has shown the way: a smart company with adequate funding, a great CEO and great talent can compete with Detroit. Or Munich. Which company has more cash and engineering talent than Apple to take on Tesla?

I think it's great that Apple executives are perhaps dreaming of a better future and trying to make a dent in the fossile fuel emissions that are slowly greenhousing our planet. Thinking big to make our lives better is Apple's forte, and I'm all for it.