David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
Why couldn’t the gadget maker build the ultimate mobile device?
In May, the car buff mag Motor Trend promised a big exclusive: An intimate first-hand look at the long-awaited “Apple Car” that the Cupertino tech company was said to be cooking up in its top-secret labs. The June issue’s cover photo, a vaguely minivan-ish blob with a glowing Apple logo, looked real enough, but the story inside was a bit of a bait-and-switch: Absent any solid intel on the project, MT had just engaged the services of some auto design students and whomped up their own speculative rendering and technical details.
This stunt earned the magazine some gentle ribbing from the rest of the automotive press. But it’s hard to blame them: We all desperately wanted to see an Apple Car. As it turns out, this would be as close as we would ever get.
Apple’s adventure in personal mobility appears to have begun in 2014, when word emerged of something called Project Titan, said to be the company’s effort to bring an Tesla-esque electric automobile to market before the end of the decade. The typically grandiose code name seemed to inspire visions of a world-conquering uberdevice, an iPad of the highways that would somehow transform transportation, and excitement mounted as rumors dribbled forth from Cupertino: The company was hiring away engineers from major automakers and was estimated to have 1,000 people squirreled away in a top-secret location. Officially, Apple was uncommunicative about its intentions, as is its wont. But the hope that some sweet Steve-Jobs-style disruption was afoot rose when their senior vice president of operations, Jeff Williams, talked to Recode about the project, briefly, in 2015. “The car,” he declared, “is the ultimate mobile device.”
Now, as Bloomberg reports, Project Titan is either dead or sadly diminished following layoffs and leadership shuffles. The dream of buying an Apple-branded vehicle at your local Apple Store is being replaced by a more modest plan to develop some kind of software package related to autonomous driving and connectivity—a juiced-up variation on their existing CarPlay system. Which, frankly, doesn’t sound very exciting. Apple may yet astonish us with something car-related, but most automakers and many a tech company are already deep in the scrum to make self-driving happen, and most seem to be further ahead. Indeed, just yesterday Tesla’s Elon Musk proclaimed that future vehicles from his firm would leave the factory with all the extra cameras and sensors required for full autonomy, though the vehicle’s current Autopilot software isn’t (yet) up to the job of taking the wheel full-time.
But the short and shadowy life of the gadget we never got does provide an instructive example of the limits of a giant’s ambitions. Why did the Apple brand’s proven aptitude for making shiny and coveted machines fail to translate to automobiles, perhaps the shiniest and most coveted of all consumer products?
As many car analysts suggest in their Titan post-mortems, it’s probable that Apple simply collided with the same structural roadblocks that doomed Preston Tucker, John DeLorean, Henrik Fisker, and so many other automotive dreamers. Making cars is really hard. The global supply chain of components is vast, the costs are enormous, and the market is dominated by a relative handful of international mega-corporations that have forged complex interdependent relationships. There’s not a lot of room for a new carmaker to bust in there and carve out a profitable space.
The current exception that proves that rule is Tesla. Their pricey electric sedans have earned rapturous reviews and the company sells every one they can assemble—but they’ve burned through billions of dollars establishing the manufacturing infrastructure, including perhaps $5 billion to construct a “gigafactory” to produce battery packs. Even as the company prepares to (finally) introduce a more modestly priced mass-market vehicle, the Tesla 3, the fact remains that it may still be a long way from profitability.
Plus, the Apple Car we imagined in our minds had an impossible role to fill. It had to be attainable for the style-conscious young urbanites who define the brand’s core audience—something small and nimble and cool-looking and maybe a notch pricier than a Kia, but not a great big two-ton luxury beast like Tesla’s Model S. The profit margins on gas-powered economy cars are terrifically thin, and it’s difficult to imagine how the company could make money selling something affordable and electric on wheels that felt acceptably Apple-esque—that trademark mix of stylish design, smart engineering, and better-than-necessary materials that make consumers feel like the mark-up they are paying over more-plebeian but equally functional competitors is worth it.
Most important, the assumption that this marvelous conveyance would also possess state-of-the-art self-driving capabilities exposed a fundamental dissonance at the heart of the Apple Car dream. This is a company that has thrived by conjuring devices that people didn’t know they needed and turning them into objects of passionate consumer desire—things for which buyers would cheerfully wait in line for days. And self-driving cars, when they arrive, will probably not inspire such ardor, no matter who makes them. They’ll be banged-up shared vehicles that ply the city streets in faceless fleets, as interchangeable and blandly functional and ignorable as taxis. Because that’s what they really are.
We may marvel at how boldly these machines change our lives, but, let’s face it: They won’t haunt our dreams once we step out of them. And Apple, probably wisely, has recognized that they have no business trying to build them.