You laughed at us when we first imagined the Apple Car in 2016. “It’s too podlike and not exciting enough to wear the Apple moniker,” you complained.
Look who’s laughing now. The pod, for better or worse, is the future of automotive design. Just peek at the likes of the Canoo Lifestyle Vehicle or the Cruise Origin or the Amazon-backed Zoox, each of which essentially is a stylized passenger cell.
The reasoning is simple: simplification. With compact electric motors instead of bulky internal combustion engines and no need for steering columns or gas and brake pedals, our projected autonomous future strips down the automobile to its most basic elements, a concept Apple has for decades applied to everything from cell phones to wristwatches.
That said, pods need not look boring, which is why we went back to the drawing board and reimagined the Apple Car. Or should we say, cars.
The Apple Touch
It may pain Apple fans to read this, but the company rarely creates truly original pieces of hardware. Its products instead tend to improve on existing concepts. For instance, Apple’s earliest personal computers—the more rudimentary Apple I of 1976 and the more familiar-looking Apple II of 1977—were beaten to market by the likes of the Altair 8800 in 1975. Likewise, the first MP3 players and smartphones, the MPman F10 of 1998 and the IBM Simon Personal Communicator of 1994, went on sale years before Apple revealed the iPod (2001) and iPhone (2007).
This is no knock against Apple’s hardware, which with exceptions such as the Apple III is generally competent in its own right, but rather a commendation on the software environment the company created over the years. Credit the late Steve Jobs’ decision to forgo licensing Apple’s operating system to other hardware manufacturers, a strategy the company tried briefly in the mid-1990s during the reign of then-CEO Michael Spindler. (Jobs ended this process upon his return to Apple.)
By maintaining integration between Apple’s software and hardware, the company could “take responsibility for the user experience from end to end,” as Walter Isaacson wrote in his 2011 book, Steve Jobs. Following Jobs’ death in October 2011, Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, regularly espouses the same beliefs.
“We love to integrate hardware, software, and services and find the intersection points of those because we think that’s where the magic occurs … and we love to own the primary technology that’s around that,” Cook told Kara Swisher of The New York Times in response to a question regarding Apple’s automotive ambitions.
Recent Apple hires provide evidence the company continues to toy with the idea of fully developing its own car. The man said to be heading the program? Kevin Lynch, the executive responsible for turning the Apple Watch into one of the Cupertino, California, tech giant’s core products. Lynch is much more a software developer than an automotive or autonomy engineer, but worry not.
Over the past few years, Apple successfully recruited automotive industry talent such as Ulrich Kranz, former CEO of Canoo and former head of BMW’s i division; Michael Schwekutsch, who previously served as Tesla’s vice president of engineering; and Anton Uselmann, an engineer whose résumé includes stints at Mercedes-AMG and Porsche.
Given Apple’s nearly $2.9 trillion market cap (as of this writing), the company certainly has the means to develop and produce its own car. Nevertheless, developing and building an automobile is not the same as developing and building personal electronic devices such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Or vacuums, as Dyson discovered when it attempted to mass produce its own electric vehicle.
As company founder James Dyson revealed in his 2021 memoir, Invention: A Life, the company invested $700 million into its stillborn EV project, which it ultimately abandoned. Blame the various costs associated with the production and storage of a “relatively low-volume” vehicle Dyson intended to sell directly to consumers.
“[W]e would have [had] to sell the car at $210,000,” Dyson wrote. “There are not many people who will buy a car at [that] price.”
Rumors persist that Apple plans to partner with an established automobile manufacturer to build its vehicle. Such a move may help Apple keep the per-unit costs reasonably low. How such a business relationship may affect Apple Car consumers is a different story.
Although it’s possible Apple decides to sell vehicles directly to the public, we hear it may ultimately pursue a car- or ride-share model, wherein Apple owns the vehicles and consumers pay to use them, à la Zipcar, with an autonomous twist. In this sense, then, Apple’s model for its car program may more closely mirror Cruise’s or Waymo’s, wherein a user schedules one of Apple’s autonomous electric vehicles to take them from Point A to Point B.
We foresee riders being able to schedule recurring rides, too; just imagine an Apple Car showing up outside your door Monday-Friday to waft you off to work or shuttle the kids to school. If Apple goes this route, the company will likely—initially, at least—limit its vehicles’ use to metropolitan areas where lower speeds and streets laid out in predictable grid patterns are the norms.
Admittedly, we’re working here with an assortment of crumbs we’ve gathered from sources and publicized leaks to come to this conclusion. Apple’s car plans could take an entirely different route from what we’re hypothesizing, or perhaps Cook and company will scrap the program altogether.
Nonetheless, an autonomous car-sharing service seems the most sensible way for Apple to enter the automotive space. After all, there’s a reason Alphabet created Waymo and why General Motors and Honda, not to mention others, invested in Cruise.
Much like Apple’s electronic devices, the company’s potential crop of autonomous vehicles will likely rely on clean design, user-friendly ergonomics, and easy integration with Apple’s various products to create a user experience distinct from those of competitors—and we think the company’s CarPlay interface may play a key role.
The Apple CarPlay Push
Today, CarPlay largely serves to display and control Apple devices running certain iterations of the brand’s mobile operating system, but tomorrow, CarPlay could effectively replace the native infotainment systems now used by automakers.
Per a Bloomberg report, Apple is looking to take CarPlay to the next level as part of a project the company’s working on, dubbed “IronHeart.” If successful, IronHeart will reportedly give CarPlay access to control various vehicle settings, including the host car’s climate, seat, and audio selections.
Apple will likely struggle to convince automakers to let CarPlay control such features, but consumer demand for a more fluid experience between their personal vehicles and mobile devices could ultimately force carmakers to play ball. Little is known about the IronHeart project to those outside of Apple (and likely to many of those within Apple, as well). There’s even a chance Apple has already scrapped IronHeart—assuming the project ever truly existed at all.
Yet it makes sense for Apple to invest in a project such as IronHeart, if only to give drivers a more standardized user experience between the mobile devices they use and the cars they pilot. Cynics are sure to view IronHeart in a darker light as a way for Apple to collect pertinent information to use in the development of its own vehicle.
This may be the case. Still, if our hunch is correct and Apple’s car program takes on the form of a car-share service, then we think the company’s intentions are far less nefarious. Rather, we wager Apple’s goal for IronHeart is to turn CarPlay into a portable profile, allowing its autonomous cars to preemptively adjust comfort and convenience features to the individual preferences of a given passenger.
The Apple Car Experience
Imagine the entirely possible future where, with few exceptions, private vehicles are banned from major metro areas such as San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago. Sure, you can take public transportation into the city, but you better hope your destination is located close to a train or bus stop.
Alternatively, you can drive your personal car to an Apple Car pickup point located just outside the city. Once parked, the Apple Car you scheduled via your smartphone’s app will whisk you away to your specific metropolitan destination with no driving required.
An array of vehicle-mounted cameras and lidar sensors work with Apple’s Maps app, which includes high-precision mapping of specific metropolitan areas, to help Apple’s fleet of cars safely react to unforeseen obstacles, such as pedestrians and road debris. Additional peace of mind comes courtesy of the Apple Cars’ vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems, which allow the autonomous cars to wirelessly “communicate” with one another and the surrounding infrastructure. Energy-dense battery packs afford many hours of continuous operation.
Although some users will lease a private Apple Car, most will subscribe to the service that allows them to use the company’s fleet of shared autonomous vehicles. Apple Car lessees and subscribers will largely consist of individuals who frequently enter city centers that ban private vehicles.
Those unable to or uninterested in justifying the cost of an Apple Car lease or subscription, however, will be able to pay to ride in one of these self-driving EVs on a single-use basis, provided there’s a fleet car available for such use. If none is, then single-use customers may decide to forgo the familiar interface of the Apple Car for a readily available autonomous vehicle from a competitor such as Cruise, Waymo, or Zoox.
In this hypothetical future, we foresee Apple introducing its automotive worldview with two models of autonomous vehicles for its users to catch a ride in: a larger, boxy multipurpose vehicle, dubbed the ePod, capable of carrying multiple passengers and their associated goods, and a smaller, single-seat option, better known as the ePod Solo. Down the line, there would be a whole fleet of offerings, ranging from eight-passenger vans to open-top sports cars.
No matter the model, Apple Car users will need only pair their CarPlay profile to the vehicle, which then automatically adjusts the likes of the display interface, climate control, seat settings, and more to the individual rider’s personal preferences. To increase profits, Apple will offer the option to unlock certain features for a small fee. This includes access to the Apple Arcade collection of mobile games, exclusive programming from Apple TV+, and even in-car workouts and meditations through Apple Fitness+.
Is the Apple Car Really Coming Soon?
Apple’s automotive doings remain a moving target, and much about what the company intends to produce in this space has changed since we first imagined the tech giant’s four-wheeled machine more than a half-decade ago. That said, the rumor mill indicates the company continues to tinker away at developing a vehicle—there’s even chatter Apple targets a launch as early as 2025. In other words, it’s only a matter of time until Apple vindicates or disproves everything we think we know about its car program, from the vehicle’s (or vehicles’) potential design to the whole operation’s potential business model.