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Apple iCar: Are Steve Jobs’ aspirations still a possibility?

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In a New York Times blog about Apple and disruptive technologies, Nick Bilton notes that:

In a meeting in his office before he died, Steven P. Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and former chief executive, told John Markoff of The New York Times that if he had more energy, he would have liked to take on Detroit with an Apple car.

Apple iCar rumors and speculation have ramped up sporadically over the years. Steve Jobs, like many boomer males, was a car enthusiast, in his case with a partiality for German marques. During the second Jobs era at Apple, the notion of an Apple-branded (or at least themed) “iCar” automobile was dangled tantalizingly in front of crossover Apple and automobile aficionados for years. Apple is rumored to have had (or perhaps even still has) a “secret internal department” at Cupertino specializing in transport-related product development, although it’s unclear whether that means car accessories, car information systems, or even yet a full blown iCar.

We do know that in 2007 Jobs met with Volkswagen’s then-CEO Dr. Martin Winterkorn in California to exchange views possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an automobile. Blogosphere speculation at the time suggested that possibly even an Apple/VW joint venture “iCar” project was being discussed, but nothing evidently came of that if it was.

Computerworld blogger Jonny Evans thinks an iBike would make more sense for Apple than an iCar. I like bikes, and as Evans notes, there are healthy markets for them in Asia and Europe, but I’m skeptical about any electric bike ever being more than a niche product in North America. Product innovators as diverse as Malcolm Bricklin and Lee Iacocca (after he retired from Chrysler) have tried promoting electric bikes, and not much has ever come of it. I think part of the reason are the distances North Americans frequently commute or even drive to shopping and services, and the winter climate north of the U.S. sunbelt. I live in Canada, and while I used to ride my (non-electric) bike around the calendar, you have to be really determined to bike more than four or five months of the year in our weather. If the objective is to make money in vehicle innovation, then an iCar would be the avenue for Apple to navigate.

Last year, AppleInsider Staff quoted J. Crew CEO and Apple board member Mickey Drexler commenting on Steve Jobs’s aspiration to design an Apple “iCar” automobile. In an interview at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference Drexler noted, “Look at the car industry, it’s a tragedy in America. Who’s designing the cars? Steve’s dream before he died was to design an iCar, and I think it would’ve been probably 50% of the market. He never did design it.”

Appleinsider has posted a video clip of the pertinent segment of Fast Company’s Drexler interview.

I think Mr. Drexler is extravagantly over-optimistic with that 50% figure. The auto industry is diverse and highly competitive, and the wayside of its progress is littered with the hulks of outsiders and insiders alike who’ve attempted to reinvent the automobile, or at least sectors off the automobile industry. Preston Tucker, Henry J. Kaiser, the aforementioned Malcolm Bricklin , and John DeLorean come to mind. The jury is still out on Elon Musk and Tesla, a topical object lesson on how difficult it is to break into the automotive market even when you’re well-financed and have an excellent design concept.

Another point I dispute with Mr. Drexler is that far from being “a tragedy,” cars from established U.S. automakers are already no slouch in the design and innovation department, as well as the best quality and providing the greatest dependability in the industry’s history, as actuarially quantified by automotive market research firm J.D. Power this week.

Reality is that the car industry is viciously competitive, and has been unkind to would-be reformers who’ve imagined they could do things better. Even shooting for 5% of the market with an iCar would be wildly ambitious. A more down-to-earth objective for an iCar would be to carve out a profitable market niche within which to demonstrate automotive innovation Apple-style.

Still arguably worth doing. Even after Steve Jobs’ passing, there are plenty of car people among Apple’s top executives. Apple’s marketing executive boss Phil Schiller is reportedly “all about cars,” and Bentley-driving Apple chief designer Jony Ive is also evidently a car enthusiast. Eddie Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services, has been a member of Ferrari’s Board of Directors since last year.

“I am pleased and proud to become a member of the board,” Cue said, commenting on his nomination. “I have personally dreamed of owning a Ferrari since I was eight years old and have been lucky to be an owner for the past five years. I continue to be awed by the world-class design and engineering that only Ferrari can do.”

Reciprocally, Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo is reputed to be an Apple aficionado, last year visiting Silicon Valley where he met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, commenting that “Apple and Ferrari are connected by the same passion, the same love for the product, maniacal attention to technology, but also to design.”

Eddy Cue’s Ferrari board appointment inevitably draws speculation about Ferrari-themed Apple hardware products, such as Ferrari/Apple MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones, or at least more integration of Apple device connectivity in Ferrari automobiles.

A Potential iPad Of Automobiles?

But could an iCar still happen? Automotive designer Gordon Murray—most famously associated with the top-tier and highly-successful McLaren Formula 1 motor racing team where he was technical director for two decades prior to 2006—thinks an Apple iCar could be a market success. “Someone like Apple could very easily make a car,” Murray told Pocket-Lint”s Stuart Miles in 2010, referencing his current preoccupation—his T.25 (gasoline-powered) and T-27 (all-electric) iStream city car designs, which were the focus of his Apple car comment.

T25 could inspire the Apple iCar

Murray’s iStream manufacturing and assembly process concept won the prestigious 2008 “Idea of the Year” award from Britain’s Autocar magazine, and amounts to a complete rethink and redesign of the traditional automobile manufacturing process and, in turn, a new type of car. Murray suggests it could potentially be the biggest revolution in high volume manufacture since Henry Ford’s iconic Model T a century ago, requiring a manufacturing plant 20% of the size of a conventional automobile factory, in turn reducing assembly plant capital investment by approximately 80% according to the designer.

T25 could inspire the Apple iCar

The iStream concept also incorporates a complete re-think on high volume automaking and materials, and Murray’s manufacturing process will lead to a significant reduction in full lifecycle CO2. It would suit Apple’s independent style much better than a formal collaboration with an established automaker, and Gordon Murray’s T.25 could very conceivably form the basis of an iCar, if Apple is still interested.

You can view a video of the Gordon Murray discussing the T.25 at www.zercustoms.com.

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  • http://www.rocketelectrics.com Nicole

    You may want to do a wee bit more research on ebikes. They are the fastest growing segment of the bike market. The ebikes attempted in the past can’t be compared today’s ebikes, that would be like comparing a 1973 mainframe to today’s smart phones.