Why an Apple Car Is a Great - and Horrible - Idea

Apple company logo

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When the news first broke that Apple was rumored to be working on a self-driving, electric car, many people's first reaction was "huh?" Apple had never been mentioned as a vehicle maker, to say nothing of being the creator of a fully automated car. Once the surprise wore off, though, the wisdom of the idea started to become clear — the wisdom and the potential folly, that is.

Recently Apple downsized the team working on the car and there are conflicting stories about if they will continue the project.

It's important to remember that Apple works on many products that it never releases and that rumors often say it's involved in projects and the rumors turn out to be false. But if the company really is still working on a smart car, the things that make Apple such a hugely successful company may be the reason its car succeeds fantastically or fails notably.

Why an Apple Car Is a Fantastic Idea

An Apple CarPlay screen in a Mercedes-Benz car

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  • Apple Perfects Product Categories: These days, Apple tends not to create entirely new product categories. Rather, it enters existing categories and delivers best-in-class options. It did this with the iPod (far from the first MP3 player), the iPhone (not the first smartphone), and the iPad. It's even doing that with the Apple Watch, which was preceded by Android smartwatches. Based on that pattern, Apple could enter the smart car space with a revolutionary offering.
  • It Has the Perfect Ecosystem: A self-driving, Internet-connected car will be about more than just what happens inside the car. It will succeed based on its integration with other products and services, and Apple offers the most robust ecosystem. Imagine a car that unlocks and starts using your Apple Watch, that communicates with your HomeKit-aware devices while you drive to prepare your house for you, that can automatically handoff documents from your Mac to the car's computer so you can work while the car drives you to the office (to say nothing of Find My iPhone for stolen cars!). Lots of companies — Google and Microsoft, for instance — offer ecosystems of services and devices, but none integrates their platforms and products better than Apple.
  • Hardware Is Crucial: While the software that drives the Apple Car and keeps you safe is essential, the car's hardware will be equally crucial. Among the tech companies working on car projects, only Apple has unquestioned expertise in hardware design and development. Google has a mixed track record: its Nexus smartphones are well respected, but not widely bought, and its Google Glass smart glasses are a major flop. Perhaps no company in tech is better at hardware than Apple.
  • Unmatched Integration: Apple's products are so high quality and so well-loved because of the inseparable integration between their hardware and software. When you make both a device's hardware and software, users never have to worry about problems caused by discrepancies between hardware and software. Imagine not being able to control your car because your steering wheel drivers are out of date or getting into an accident because your intelligent braking plug-in is incompatible with your car's OS. That doesn't happen with Apple products.
  • CarPlay Isn't Enough: Apple's CarPlay platform has been slow getting off the ground, both because it's not as widely offered by car companies as it could be and because it offers a limited experience (see the importance of hardware and software integration above). It's the first step into the car, but it can't be Apple's only automotive effort.​

Why an Apple Car Is a Terrible Idea

A hypothetical Apple Car with an damaged fender

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  • Cars Aren't Apple's Business: It's received wisdom in business, especially technology, that companies should identify their core competencies and stick with them. Cars are about as far from Apple's core competency as you can get. Sure, they're increasingly digital and connected—two things Apple is great at — but its competencies are in productivity and entertainment, not utility functions like cars.
  • Software Reliability Is Essential: There's been some discussion about a decline in the reliability and quality of some Apple software. While computer and smartphone users can find workarounds, there's no margin for software error in a car.
  • Apple's Cloud and Maps Services Aren't Bulletproof: Apple Maps, which would presumably be the service the Apple Car uses to navigate, has been famous for its problems. While the service is improving all the time, it's still not as good as Google Maps. And iCloud, which presumably will also be central to the car, sometimes goes offline.
  • Cars Are Life and Death Products: A non-functional iPhone may feel like a life or death issue, but it's not. A non-functioning intelligent car, especially one that drives itself, maybe. While Apple creates highly reliable, highly functional devices, it's never built a product that can literally affect its user's life and death. That will require entirely new ways of working and testing.
  • Culture Clash: Apple is through and through a Silicon Valley technology company, with all that that means about how it expects employees to work and what the employees expect from the company. The culture of car companies may have as much in common with 19th-century factories as it does with 21st-century tech. If Apple is going to make a car, it will have to engage with an industry culture that's antithetical to its DNA — and corporate culture clashes have scuttled many promising projects.

The Fate of the Apple Car

With so many pros and cons on each side of the argument, what is Apple going to do? It's hard to say for sure. Since the original rumors of an Apple car, there have been stories that both said Apple was getting out of the car business entirely and that it was focused just on making software for cars. But then there are persistent stories about Apple continuing to test self-driving cars.

Just because it's testing cars doesn't mean those cars will ever hit the road, but we shouldn't be at all surprised to see a car with the Apple logo on the hood someday.