It’s sometimes said that when a giant whispers, the whole world shakes. So it was with the recent gathering hub-bub of rumors and leaks surrounding high-tech colossus Apple – tremors are still being felt across a whole industry. For the old-school, gas-guzzling auto industry, the rumbles were a worrying sign that long-held certainties might be about to be shaken to the ground. But for the burgeoning electric vehicle sector, the whispering-campaign around Apple and its EV plans has many asking – is the long-vaunted EV inflection point about to arrive?
Titan looms large
The rumor mill over Apple’s possible rebranding of the humble car as the iCar started with talk of sensor-laden vans spotted in Hawaii, New York and San Francisco. Could these be experimental autonomous-driving data-gatherers, asked some pundits? Then the Wall Street Journal broke a story of Project Titan, a team of up to 1,000 Apple staff assigned the task of building an electric car.
Add to that allegations of a poaching war between Tesla and Apple – and suits being issued by battery manufacturer 123 Systems – and the direction of travel became clear. Apple really wants to shake things up in the world of personal transport.
It’s a move that has raised eyebrows – and a few hackles – in the auto industry. A former GM chief executive has said that Apple’s shareholders should be worried: outsiders to the industry underestimate the challenge of building, and then selling, cars, he said. Mercedes-Benz chairman, Dieter Zetsche, has gone so far as to call it a publicity stunt. But others say they are missing the point Apple might not be aiming to go toe-to-toe with the established auto-giants. It could be about to outflank them.
First music, then phones, now cars?
Firstly, that’s because it will be throwing a brand synonymous with ground-breaking innovation behind the new age of the automobile – the electric car. Time and again, Apple has proven its ability to harness its loyal throng of tech-loving early adopters. They could single-handedly bend the curve of EV adoption round its inflection point, and on to mass acceptance. And of course, the market leader at such a point would have plenty of traction to dominate EV sales for years to come. Just witness the dominance of over the smart-phone world that Apple achieved, after breaking new ground when it introduced the iPhone.
And secondly, Apple’s concept may not be build and sell cars at all. With a slackening pace of car ownership among the young, some have proclaimed the need for a new business model – offering the car as a ‘personal mobility service’, rather than a product. Self-driving cars, intelligent fleet management systems, and the electric drive-train are the three technologies that might just make such a model viable, for a company with deep enough pockets. Enter Apple, with its famed $170b war-chest.
Either way, whether as direct sales competition, or subversive new upstart service, Apple undoubtedly has the capacity to push EVs into the mainstream auto sector. Intriguingly, that could see history repeating itself, with corporates once again in the van-guard. Just as the Apple microcomputer pushed forward the idea of every corporate employee having a computer on their desktop, the purported iCar could bring EVs into the corporate fleet – and charging stations to the workplace parking lot.