The iCar: Fantasy or Reality?
Ever since Apple was rumored to be in negotiations with Volkswagen months ago, the idea of an iCar -- some sort of car in which Apple would play a hand in design -- has had people wondering. What would it look like? What would it do? Would Apple's technology be limited to a simple iPod dock in the stereo, or would an iCar mean more than that?
Months ago, stories about Apple talking to Volkswagen about a joint project fueled speculation about the possibilities of something that could only be called an "iCar." Apple officials, however, were and remain tight-lipped about any motor vehicle branded with their company's logo.
However, the speculation has led to lots of rumors, and MacNewWorld couldn't help but wonder how much of it was based on real possibilities that an iCar design could be in the works. Our collective imaginations got us thinking about what an iCar might look like and how would an automaker incorporate Apple's design know-how into an iCar.
The closer we looked, the more we kept remembering a popular adage about what would happen if the auto industry had kept up with the computer industry: Cars would get 100 miles per gallon and cost US$500. However, they would crash every two months.
Of course, the joke pointed fun at Apple's Redmond competition, leaving a growing belief that an Apple partnership with a key automaker could be beneficial to consumers.
"It would be one thing to be able to plug in an Apple product into a car. This would create a sea change in the auto industry. But it is still a pretty vaporous concept," Jason Hill, president and founder of the environmentally conscious vehicle design firm Eleven, told MacNewsWorld.
More Than Wishful Thinking?
Still, the idea behind an iCar may have some credibility, Hill believes. It is an idea that people want to see, so there is talk about it, Hill said.
"This concept of an iCar is not pie in the sky. It is coming from pressure outside the auto industry from places such as Silicon Valley. It's appearance will happen sooner or later. It probably will not be associated with a particular automotive brand," he surmised.
Hill's conjecture about an iCar has a solid basis. He has a long list of credits as a senior car designer for leading automotive makers, including a four-year stint at Daimler's Mercedes design studio, Samsung Motors and Porsche.
More recently, he has transitioned from a major reputation in designing muscle cars to designing environmentally conscious vehicles. He also is training the next generation of automotive designers as an adjunct professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.
While discussions between Apple and other carmakers may be ongoing, the extent of the footprint Apple would make on a car design is not clear.
"Apple is in discussion with all carmakers both domestic and foreign. Customers want iPod access. Plus they want audio from their iPod sent through the car," Dan Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research, told MacNewsWorld. He also authored six books, including the highly acclaimed Technotrends.
Volkswagen seems to be the likeliest partner to start the iCar production, Burrus believes. Lexus so far rejected Apple's overtures for a partnership.
"But Lexus customers are complaining about the lack of ports for their devices, so Lexus might be rethinking its posture," he said.
Scott Painter has been researching the market for an iCar since 2002. Views of what an iCar would look like are vastly speculative, he concedes. However, the final rendering would no doubt hold true to Apple's branding philosophy.
"If Apple got into this type of project from the ground up, it would be a nightmare. But with today's modular installation, risk of failure is eliminated. At higher levels, brand and design are the differentiators of any car. All the rest of the components that make today's car drive and be safe is optimized already," Painter, founder and CEO of Zag.com, told MacNewsWorld. His company provides online car-buying services.
What would an iCar look like? Painter is convinced that developers would start with buying a motor off of the world parts bin. This drives most of the automotive industry today, he said. Developers would have to build the rest of the design around this.
"There would be no problem with the entire design concept. It would be very Apple-esque. Apple is driven by brand over functionality. No doubt, the iCar would have Apple written all over it," Painter projected.
Any starting point for an innovative iCar would begin with an expansion of the Apple brand, according to Burrus. He sees great potential for Apple to go beyond the iPod to putting the iPhone and video products in the car.
In fact, Apple could easily expand its working family of location-finding devices into an innovative navigational system that could run the car. The not-quite-GPS (Global Positioning System) found in Apple's iPhone and iPod touch uses the device's WiFi function to triangulate a user's location in relation to all of the known WiFi spots across the continental U.S., Burrus explained. Other GPS systems use satellites to determine a vehicle's location.
"It's not hard to imagine a mini doc integrated into the entire vehicle. This could include video screens built into the rear passenger space. How about different audio seats for different sounds for different passengers?" he noted.
Burrus would expect Apple to integrate Google Earth and the mobile iPhone into the steering wheel to give the driver unbridled access and control at his or her fingertips.
Starship iCar, Anyone?
An iCar design would no doubt pull everything together as an integrated system, Burrus envisions. For example, a location-finding system could tell you how to get to the airport, but why stop there?
An integrated unit could check on flight delays, available accommodations and more. It could also check on the car's gas supply and plot a course to the nearest gas station, according to Burrus' guesstimates.
"Such an integrated design would allow the vehicle's operator to talk to the rest of the car and connect to the Internet over the open road," he offered. "By plugging a unit into a dashboard docking station, the vehicle would be able to use all the information from the iPhone for the advantage of the entire car."
Whoever the auto partners would be, Apple is a design-first company. That means Apple focuses on getting the function built in. Design as an afterthought will not work, according to Hill.
Any concept for the so-called iCar would have Apple embedded all through it. Apple uses design as its competitive advantage, he continued. "They take their product and apply it to everything else they do."
Thus, Apple's concept would probably transcend much beyond sound and entertainment in the iCar. There is a certain elegance to Apple interface, Hill explained.
"With Apple, the user comes first. The function is always wrapped around an elegant package," he said.
Will It Happen?
Burrus sees Apple tweaking any iCar design to fit like a driving glove around Apple innovation. For example, Apple succeeded in creating a thin form factor for its iPhone by eliminating the chipset so the battery could be much smaller.
"Apple is into innovation. It has been in the forefront of many innovations such as video and the graphical user interface, or GUI. It created the mouse and other computer peripherals that are standard today in any operating platform," said Burrus.
Simplicity and elegance as the design standard would be the driving parts, added Hill.
"It is not wacky that Apple would reach out to automakers. Of course, all of this is total speculation. If Apple really is going down this road, it will need an entirely different perspective from the designs of anything Apple has ever done," Painter said.
However, he is not fully confident Apple will follow through. Everybody in the auto business is cynical the iCar will ever happen, he added.
"I'm talking extreme skepticism. But from Apple's view, if it wanted to do an iCar, it could do it," he concluded.