Apple and Google: Tomorrow's Carmakers?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 17, 2015

The automakers have made no secret about their obsession with Tesla Motors, but what if the real upstarts come from totally outside the car industry? Quick, which two companies have unlimited R&D funds and a fascination with the increasing common ground between the tech industry and today’s cars?

TechMash posted this fanciful conception of an Apple car. Missing? Cute icons. (TechMash graphic)Apple and Google, right? The two big stars regularly shake hands with auto companies at the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but they’re more collaborators than rivals. Well, the word is that both are deeply involved in car-related projects.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple “has several hundred employees working secretly toward creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle, according to people familiar with the matter.” Well, make that "not so secretly," now. The EV is code named “Titan,” and it’s said to be a kind of self-driving electric minivan. That makes sense, because minivans—with their rear-seat entertainment and other features—could integrate very well with state-of-the-art Apple technology. Also, there aren’t any electric minivans, or even a hybrid one outside of Japan. A Reuters report adds the detail that the car is self-driving, which is unmentioned by the WSJ.

If Apple CEO Tim Cook wants to get out from under Steve Jobs’ protean shadow, a car would certainly fit the bill. The Apple car/van project, supposedly approved a year ago, is said to be serious, and has involved talks with auto suppliers like Magna International, which declined comment. Australian Marc Newsom, an Apple designer since last year, developed the 021C concept car for Ford in 1999. A neat feature of the car, shown at the Tokyo Motor Show, was a drawer-like slide-out trunk.

Marc Newsom's 1999 Ford concept car included a drawer-like trunk. Now he and other car guys are working at Apple. (Marc Newsom graphic)Apple also hired Johann Jungwirth, a refugee from Mercedes-Benz, where self-driving cars were in his portfolio. Now he's "focusing on building great Mac products." Want more evidence? Business Insider fielded a quote from inside the company: "Apple's latest project is too exciting to pass up," it said. "It will change the landscape and give Tesla a run for its money." 

ZDNet is skeptical. “Other than petty rivalry [with Google],” it said, “it just doesn't add up. A self-driving car? It's the only time you’ll hear me say, ‘A television would make a lot more sense.’”

Google, meanwhile, is well known for its own self-driving cars, and it showed an innovative concept for a vehicle free of steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals. It has a five-year target for commercialization. Like Apple, the company lusts for a branded automobile, but is aware that it can’t go it totally alone.

Google's prototype car looks like it drove right off a Pixar set. (Google photo)Chris Urmson, who heads the self-driving project at Google, said recentlyWe don’t particularly want to become a carmaker. We are talking [with] and looking for partners.

Urmson added that “it would be goofy for us to try and replicate” the expertise of automakers, and that’s absolutely true. Why should Google or Apple try to create, for instance, suspension systems, wheels, brakes and window glass, when there are thousands of suppliers eager to cut a deal?

Yes, Google and Apple would find making a TV more in their comfort zone, but where’s the adventure in that? Does the world need another television set? Maybe we don’t need another car, either, but who isn’t fascinated to see what these big boys come up with?

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