On June 12 2014 Elon Musk opened up all of Tesla’s electric car patents for anyone to freely use. Why? Because he wants more electric cars on the road than Tesla can possibly build and the big auto companies are not doing enough to make this happen. I’m confident that Mr Musk is excited at rumors that Apple are exploring the possibility of making an electric car.
Apple as a company seems to have a keen sense of their responsibility toward the environment. I expect Tim Cook was deeply impressed and inspired by Elon Musk’s grand gift to the world. Could this have been the moment that prompted Apple to expand it’s research into electric cars?
Some journalists are talking about how Apple could not pull this off. One objection is that Apple would need to do much research and create patents. However, the fact is that Tesla have done much of the work for them. Another objection is that Apple has no experience making cars. The same was said of Tesla and look what they have done. A third objection is that Apple could not compete in a market that has such slim margins. Again this objection falls flat when we consider the fact is that Apple is already in a market that has slim margins – other phone and computer manufacturers have very slim margins but Apple takes away most of the profit because they have great products, user experience and business model.
Apple’s business model is in some resects well suited to the auto industry. For example, Apple focusses on a relatively small number of products (which is only growing as they grow as a company). Most big auto manufacturers have a bewildering array of brands and models, they even produce different models for the U.S. than Europe and different models still for Australia – this is extremely wasteful in design, manufacturing and maintenance. Apple’s business model minimizes waste and that helps the bottom line. If Apple can make a great car and get the user experience right they will really shake up the auto industry.
What is the right user experience for a car? There is much talk in the media about self driving cars. Is that the ultimate solution? I don’t think I’d really enjoy having a car that is in total control, all the time. I’d love a car that I can ask to take control for long journeys on the highway. I’d also like to have a car that can intervene to avoid an accident but for the most part I enjoy driving and I believe a car should be great to drive. Somehow, it seems that if the car is in complete control it would take away a sense of freedom that we are perhaps not currently fully cognizant of because we are so used to it. Many Tech journalists that I listen to (mostly also big sci-fi fans) can’t wait to buy a self driving car but to me it seems somewhat inhuman. When we drive a car it becomes an extension of our body in a way that empowers us, and seemingly enhances us. A self driving car does not have this human appeal, it’s not something we can love in the same way. Furthermore, since no one has ever seen a computer that never crashes, few people would be willing to put their lives fully in the hands of a computer.
A self driving car will feel less personal. What matters most is how a product feels. Ultimately the tech products that feel personal and human will prevail. This is why Google Glass and other augmented reality headsets will ultimately fail as products for everyday use – they are to inhuman. Google Glass for example comes in-between it’s wearer and other people. In contrast Apple watch is discrete and familiar in a way that makes people feel more comfortable. Tech companies continually underestimate the human element that is required of products that people will love. A tablet with capacitive buttons that are inadvertently activated as a user handles the device, machines pre-installed with unwanted software, invasive advertisements, ugly and confusing user interfaces – these all ignore the human element. What differentiates Apple is that they usually get the human element right. If Apple were to design a car they would likely take a fresh look at the user interface and reinvent it. Their focus would likely be on getting a decent range out of an electric battery and hitting a price point that is within reach of more people, they would likely see this as ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘leaving the world better than they found it’.