Multiple reports in the last several days have suggested that Apple is working on cars in some capacity. That inevitably sets the imagination running wild: how can a company that makes most of its money from a pocket-sized chunk of aluminum and circuitry make the transition into transportation — a brutal industry that has claimed hundreds of companies over the last century?
At a high level, I'd suggest that reinventing the automobile today is no more audacious than reinventing the cellphone in 2007, as Apple did — and it might even be easier, considering Apple's historic brand power and market position. But that doesn't mean it'd be a walk in the park, nor does it mean that it's the only thing Apple could be working on. Let's have a look at a few projects that Tim Cook, Jony Ive, and team could be cooking at their rumored transportation research lab.
A dashboard takeover
CarPlay, like Android Auto, has a fairly substantial flaw: it's limited in scope. It doesn't control car functions, per se — climate control, AM / FM radio, settings for your daytime running lamps, so on. That means that any time you need to do something outside the scope of CarPlay, you need to exit out of it and deal with a different user experience controlled by the automaker. Nine times out of 10, that experience won't be as good.
Apple could offer to work hand-in-hand with a car company to do something far grander in scale. Imagine Apple's software and hardware design sensibilities scaled up for a complete takeover of a car's cabin: the instrument cluster, the seat heaters, and everything in between. Alternatively, Apple could be going head-to-head with suppliers like BlackBerry's QNX division, which basically offers turnkey operating systems for the dashboard.
If you're Ford, GM, Volkswagen, Toyota, or another major automaker and Apple approached you about a partnership of that magnitude, you'd have to at least consider it, right? (Notably, Apple was said to have worked with Jaguar on the controls of the XF sedan several years ago.)
A real street view competitor
The lack of street view has been an enormous blind spot for Apple Maps since it launched several years ago. The company has filled the gap with its stunning three-dimensional overhead view — courtesy of mapping firm C3 Technologies, which it acquired in 2011 — but it's no substitute for Google Maps, which lets you get an eye-level view of a neighborhood so you can actually see what you're looking for when you're navigating to a destination.
The vans belonging to Apple that have been spotted with racks full of cameras mounted on their roofs could certainly suggest that they're testing their own street view solution — but those same racks could just as easily be used in a computer vision system for self-driving technology. Taking pictures of street corners and autonomous driving are, needless to say, two very different things.
Apple's just taking CarPlay really, really seriously
I get the sense that demand for CarPlay and Android Auto — especially once drivers start using it — will be extremely high. Soon, you won't want to buy a car without it. Apple could be getting that same impression, so it's scaling its research into driver-car interfaces way, way up. As it stands, CarPlay is little more than a tweaked iPhone / iPad user interface with a bunch of capabilities locked out to reduce driver distraction; imagine how much smarter it could get over the next few years.
They're making a mobility device, but it's not a car
I'm immediately reminded of Gogoro, the recently introduced scooter and battery swapping system whose CEO is a longtime designer — one who takes his work very seriously. And when you look at the rise of "rideables" — electric skateboards, bicycles, so on — there's lots of hunger for innovation in personal mobility lately. Sure, the Segway was a complete disaster, but that was a long time ago. Urbanization is on the rise; so is global warming. A one- or two-place Apple transporter could be a huge deal.
Or... yes, it's a car
This is the improbable conclusion that's being bandied about more than any other right now. The rumors and reporting from FT and Business Insider suggest that Apple is indeed hiring the kinds of people that it would take to make a car — a real, road-going car to compete with the world's auto giants.
Five years ago, I would've laughed it off. I still think it's an outside chance — there are dozens of lower-hanging fruits where Apple could spend its billions blowing up entire industries, and easier ways to have a dramatic impact on mobility — but it's now impossible to write off completely. Tesla is the test case here: a startup is now the hottest name in electric cars, and perhaps the hottest name in the automotive world, period. It's not profitable (in fact, it just had a pretty disastrous quarter), but there's enough momentum behind Musk's various initiatives that his company is very unlikely to go away. And let's not forget that the Model S isn't just passable — it's a legitimately fantastic (and terrifyingly fast) car. A decade ago, Tesla had no more experience building world-class cars than Apple does today. Oh, and Apple is starting with $180 billion in the bank. (That's just slightly less than the market capitalizations of GM, Ford, and Volkswagen combined.)