Get behind the wheel of a car from 1950 and you probably can figure out how to drive it. Cars are now vastly more refined, the highway system is greatly improved and cities and suburbs have been shaped by the automobile. But the basic car, at least to the driver, seems like it has only seen incremental change. Very few of us had gyrocopters or jet belts in our garages. The notion of ground transportation hasn't changed very quickly.
Around 2000 a new future looked possible. Radical technology changes were getting closer to commercialization. There were new power-trains, navigation systems, and DARPA had programs looking ahead to self-driving vehicles. Terrific change was rocking the mixture of communication and computation. Would we see much in transportation, or was the current incremental change likely to continue for the next few decades?
Think of a car as a skateboard that an interior/body assembly is bolted to...
I had been to GM a few times as part of a program where a few AT&T Research types spent time talking with R&D counterparts at important AT&T customers. The visits were not about what one company could do for the other, but a rather joint look into what different sectors thought was cool. It was an education into where researchers thought technology was going and where innovation might occur.1
The prototype was still in simulations and small models - a blank sheet of paper. The only design constraint was it had to be hydrogen fuel cell based. The motors (one for each wheel), fuel cells, batteries were all part of a rolling chassis that looked like a skateboard. Control would be drive-by-wire. With the low center of gravity handling could be impressive. I was told a million mile motor was 'easy' - the real problem would be the fuel cells and the acceleration battery. But this was a blue sky concept - little details like practical fuel cells and a support infrastructure were details for the future. Plus the Bush administration was dumping billions into fuel cell R&D.
Manufacturing could be streamlined. By trusting computers and going drive-by-wire you could make a common chassis and a wide variety of bodies. The technique was a step back from unit body construction - the old body-on-frame technique used on SUVs and pickups. There could be an enormous amount of design flexibility. If fuel cells and batteries could be made to last - or at least were replaceable as modules - a person might own a vehicle for 15 or 20 years periodically going in for a new body that would fit their needs better. There could even be a standardized design that allowed local suppliers to create snap-on bodies that might only appeal to very limited regions.
The electronics came in modules that weren't as co-dependent as current cars. The notion of the rats-nest of wiring harnesses went out the window and would be replaced by fiber optics cables offering huge savings in construction and repair costs.
I pushed the point on fuel cells as even people at DARPA thought batteries practical for military applications. Why not give up on long range vehicles and sell something to segments that covered the vast majority of driving in the US? After all, it was just a different way of segmenting a market.
There was a long sigh. At the time he didn't have much faith in fuel cells either, but that was one of the few parameters he was not allowed to alter. GM was getting large sums of fuel cell R&D funding from the feds and the EV programs had been internal disasters. Also important European and Japanese competitors saw a hydrogen future so he had to address competitive issues.
It seemed like he was addressing points from a viewgraph. Finally he looked up at the ceiling and changed gears. Ultimately, he said, everything from motorcycles to airplanes would use electric power. Efficiency demanded that. The real question is when. At that point we started talking about electric airliners - probably the first time I thought about turbo-electric hybrids as transitions and air-metal batteries. Our hour meeting had gone on another three hours before I had to call it quits to catch a flight. Stories for another day. One thing he said about cars - about his skateboard - stuck with me...
What if Apple made a car? Indeed. The Wall Street Journal and others have been publishing rumor reports of a secret program within Apple. It could be something minor blown out of proportion - a remake of CarPlay for example. It could be a different serious focus on the infotainment layer - or perhaps the intervehicle communication layer .. or any number of things. I obviously don't know anything about it, but Apple has been known to design. If Apple did build a car, what might it be like? I state up front that I'm very skeptical that they'll do something in the first place - it would take partnerships, mergers, and several years. They have the money, the design talent, and enormous patience. So with that a few thoughts - most are likely to be wrong, but they might spur deeper thoughts.
I'd focus on a pure electric. The current internal combustion engine may be mature after 150 years of refinement, but has about two orders of magnitude more parts than an electric motor, needs a lot of care and has a limited life, only has a 25% or so thermal efficiency, vibrates, produces nasty combustion byproducts, is expensive and introduces design limitations. Batteries are much further along than fuel cells when infrastructure is concerned and are currently less expensive with encouraging signs of breaking even with IC cars in some segments in five years or so. Additionally the drive train efficiency of a pure EV is much greater than a hydrogen fuel cell EV.
An electric car currently costs a boatload of money to add enough for long drives. Most people have short daily drives, but have a few long trips a year. Most people, buying a car, think in terms of rare use scenarios. What if we pack in four extra kids or need to carry a 4x8 sheet? What if we drive to Florida rather than fly? What if, what if...
What if you think in terms of transportation as a service? Perhaps a car could be made to focus on only a few niches and you buy it as a service? Or what if you buy the car and its battery pack is somehow offered as a service? Perhaps the cost of electricity could even be included. And batteries will improve. Not as quickly as memory or cpus, but they'll improve.
A properly designed EV can last a long time - remember what the GM guy said. I'm a fan of the modular skateboard chassis and electric skateboards are easier than the hydrogen fuel cell variety. I buy the car and keep it for 15 or 20 years, but along the way I change the body every three or five years to match current needs. Make the electronics modular for easy hardware upgrades along the way and more frequent software upgrades. If I need long range I can rent something with an IC engine - perhaps at a discount. Or perhaps I can rent an aluminum-air primary battery for 1,000 mile range for long trips.2
Batteries are still evolving. Elon Musk is making a bet on a very conventional vehicle with a large battery pack that uses a conservative chemistry.3 With luck he might hit his design goals. Apple, if they made a car, might be more flexible and start with something conservative moving to newer chemistries if they pan out on appropriate time scales. It is all about production management - something they're rather good at. Risk could be mitigated by selling the packs that have aged past automotive grade, or the use of them, to utilities or transmission companies.4 Apple already has large agreements with electric utilities. There may be interesting synergies.
Everyone is talking about fully autonomous cars and dreaming about the future these days. I'll claim we'll see much more automation, but full autonomy is some way in the future. For now fully autonomous vehicles are the gyrocopters and jet packs of today. But in the nearer term one can imagine a variety of transportation as a service and transportation on demand scenarios.
To think about costs you have to consider specific scenarios, but a very long lasting platform that forms the basis for a service could be interesting. A fun area of speculation even if Apple isn't doing it - after all, where's their large screen TV. Potentially this 'feels' more interesting than Uber or Tesla in their current form.
And this is a very big but.. Cars are enormously complex to deal with compared with what Apple is doing now. Dealerships, repairs, regional safety and emission standards, huge plants and so on. There are a lot of moving pieces to get right and it isn't clear the profit is there. In the end say they could do it if they wanted. They could do a lot of things. If this is real I'd guess it is a prototype to see if they could make something and add enough value to make it worthwhile. A few hundred million isn't a lot of money to Apple these days. If they pulled a trigger, figure four or five years to any kind of production unless they buy someone.
Transportation is broken and broken equals opportunity. Although Apple is good at working with broken system, they have also demonstrated a clear ability pick and chose. Their strength is knowing how to say no to ideas that lack potential for their ecosystem and focus on the few that do. In the end I'm going to say - no, it won't happen as a car. But there may be other connections through Apple's growing ecosystem. Who knows, perhaps your 2022 Ford, Toyota or BYD will be an accessory to your iPhone - a different form of CAR.
1 These programs had been around for decades - at least back into the 1950s. Usually with University counterparts, but also with select industry sectors. The NDAs were such that findings were kept within the R&D organizations.
2 If you throw out the requirement to recharge and add energy to the battery during its assembly remarkable energy densities are possible - at least five and possibly ten times as much as a Lithium-ion secondary battery. The cost is greater - perhaps about as much as an IC car, but they can be recycled and may make sense for long trips. Alcoa has an interesting program.
3 Folks who do battery research call themselves 'battery guys' (there are some gals too, but - you know - sexism). They make a point that Tesla doesn't have any battery guys to make the point that Tesla is very conservative.
4 After 1,000 to 2,000 charge cycles a lithium ion battery falls to about 80% of rated capacity and is generally replaced. It can still be still very useful in fixed energy storage and power management schemes. In short there is a non-trivial used value.
not my own, but too delicious not to make. I'm linking to Jeené's sweet potato cake. A true vegan cake, it is a bit flat and dense, but delicious and easy to make.