Apple Car: For Real This time?

Here we go again: Apple is rumored to build an electric and, hopefully, electrifying car. Are the rumors founded? If so, will Apple create a better Tesla or something else entirely?

According to the “official” Wikipedia chronicle, Apple Car rumors first appeared in late 2014. Since then, like a flu virus, the rumor mutates and reemerges every season. The most recent strain says that Hyundai/Kia will be the manufacturing partner with prototypes appearing in 2022 — or maybe 2024 — with production models by 2026 or 2028. We know that there’s large-scale development work on one or more car projects inside Apple Park and other Valley locations, that the company is hiring experts from Tesla and other auto industry leaders. So much time and money invested can only mean one thing: There will be an Apple Car some day!

Therein lies the first misunderstanding. Apple’s vast R&D budget — $18.75B in 2020, more than GM and Ford combined — allows the company to pursue many projects and only ship the ones that show real promise. Yes, Apple occasionally produces failures such as the regretted Cube and embarrassing bugs such as the almost forgotten Antennagate incident, but the company never releases a prototype to alleviate doubt or preempt a competitor. We’re not going to see an Apple Concept Car; there go the 2022 or 2024 prototype rumors.

We remember the rumors propagated by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster who, for close to five years, insisted that Apple was going to ship a magical TV set Real Soon Now. We see a similar phenomenon in the evergreen Apple Car rumors. Of course, there’s a huge difference between TVs and cars: There are many more places to add hardware and software features to an automobile than to a TV set, despite TV manufacturers’ efforts to “add value” (while capturing user data).

That may be true, but this drops us into Tesla territory, a company that gives the German auto industry a good run for its money by skillfully integrating homegrown hardware and software (not unlike a certain Cupertino company). In other words, the fabled Apple Car would have to be a better Tesla. 

In Theory, the famous realm where everything works, it’s certain that we’ll have a better Tesla…someday. But, again like Apple, Tesla is known for the loyalty of its customers despite the notorious imperfections of the delivered product, software bugs, body panel gaps . (See also the WSJ article How Volkswagen’s $50 Billion Plan to Beat Tesla Short-Circuited which details VW’s failed attempt to develop integrated software for its new electric vehicles.)

While Apple could make a better Tesla with parts manufactured in Stuttgart, Münich, Tokyo, or Detroit and assembled in South Korea or in a Georgia factory, would it be worth the effort? Would it fit the company’s profit profile? Tesla achieved close to 20% Gross Margin in 2020, GM came in at 10% and Ford about 12%. Apple’s Gross Margin exceeded 38%, a different game.

This says nothing of the Sales and Marketing expenditure — after the Gross Margin — that’s required to distribute and service a car. To belabor the obvious, it’s one thing to sell and service a $1K iPhone or a $2K to $5K computer; existing Apple Stores can’t diagnose and fix a complicated, heavily regulated product for which the customer has paid upwards of six figures. You would need different facilities, different people, a different culture.

Still in Theory, that’s not out of the reach of an immensely rich, technically competent, patient, disciplined company such as Apple, which is why I found JP Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee’s Go Big Or Go Home article interesting. The gentleman posits that the automobile industry’s “Total Addressable Market” approaches $2.5T (as in Trillion) while the smartphone market is “only” $420B. I’ll extrapolate a little: Apple could be shooting for a minority share of the market but a majority portion of the profits, just the way it does in the “smaller” smartphone space.

This all well and good until one considers a big difference: The auto industry is old, entrenched, and difficult to penetrate, while the smartphone space was still very young when the iPhone erupted on the scene. On this topic, Horace Dediu provides more food for thought in his Entrant Guide to Automotive Industry, updated from the first February 2015 version, one that stars with the ominous, relevant phrase: “Like a siren, it calls…” The 2021 version concludes [as always, edits and emphasis mine]:

“… either there will be twice as many cars as we have now or they will be twice as expensive or they will be twice as profitable. 

And all that will happen really soon. We can’t have twice the cars since there will be nowhere to park them. We can’t double the price unless we double our wealth. We can’t make them twice as profitable unless we disable competitive forces and change the production system.

Or, it could be that half the assets (all the other automakers) are worthless.

Something has to give. The paradoxes multiply.

Into this will, one hopes, step Apple. Things are about to get really interesting.”

The link at the end leads to a Dediu article on Micromobility World titled Apple “Computer” which I strongly encourage you to read. At the risk of oversimplifying, Micromobility’s central thesis is that modern cars are built to endure rare 1,000 miles trips, even though the vast majority of our outings are in low multiple of 10 miles. Hence the need for better transportation tolls, for Micromobility vehicles.

Dediu concludes that Apple might strive to “deliver smiles rather than miles”:

“Here’s hoping that Apple’s entry into transport and personal mobility will be more bicycle than car, more iPod than Hi Fi Stereo, more iPhone than PC. But even if it isn’t an iPhone on wheels, perhaps we should see it as an iPad.”

This is a bold supposition, one I’m tempted to embrace. There are examples of vehicles that are more bicycles than cars. BMW’s C1 was more bike than car in spite of its roof and hasn’t survived:

Courtesy Wikipedia

Renault’s two-passenger Twizy quadricycle looks like a better early approximation:

Courtesy Wikipedia

In US dollars the price is about $10K. Imagine what a well-financed engineering organization could create with a simple “micromobile” car.

So…what would an Apple Car be? A better Tesla, a better Twizy, or something else entirely?


Read our series on the reinvention of the car

Last summer, we published a six-part series on the future of the automobile

andy-wang unsplash

01: The car, reinvented. From scratch.

We know little about the AppleCar, except that it was meant to be designed from the ground up. In this series, I asked the French engineer Philippe Chain, an alum of Tesla among other places, to go back to the drawing board.

02: Your next car will be electric

The automobile sector is poised for a drastic shift with the rise of EVs. Strangely enough, some components of the switch are not unrelated to what happened in the digital sector with the smartphone and the deployment of fiber optic.

03: How Tesla cracked the code of

 automobile innovation

Tesla is several years ahead of other carmakers. A view from the inside can help us grasp the key differentiators that sustain its lead. That’s episode 3 of our series on the reinvention of the automobile

04: The Global Race for Battery Supply

To preserve its independence vis-à-vis Asia, Europe needs to build several gigafactories. It will be a huge industrial endeavor. This is episode 4 of our series on the future of the car and mobility.

05: Code on Wheels

Software will play a central role in the upcoming car revolution. Unless legacy carmakers quickly reinvent themselves, new players will fill the gap to provide an OS and an app ecosystem.

06: EVs: The Manufacturing Revolution

The most spectacular feature of electric vehicles is the freedom it gives for the structural design of the car. It will also radically change the way vehicles are manufactured. This is episode 6 of our series on the reinvention of cars. It starts with some fiction.

(Upcoming episode: The Car as a Service) — (FF)

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