Looking down the road at Apple's automotive future

No, Apple isn't building a car yet, but recent hires point to the company looking to position itself as a much bigger player in the automotive world. Let's look a little deeper at the implications.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
6 min read

The F015, Mercedes-Benz's vision for the future of transportation Mercedes-Benz.

It seems like just last week the world was lamenting Apple's loss of hundreds of engineers to Tesla, that upstart automaker down the street in Palo Alto. And that's because it was just last week, but now the talk has shifted 180 degrees thanks to a Financial Times report. It states that Apple is making a series of major hires from the automotive world, creating a "confidential Silicon Valley location" to develop... something. And now, the WSJ and Reuters are pouring oil on the fire.

Among those hires? Johann Jungwirth, who until very recently was President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America. His arrival, plus talk of other automotive engineers joining the ranks more quietly, has a lot of people speculating that Apple's next one more thing will be a car.

I won't rule out Apple rolling out something on wheels sometime down the road, but for now, the most likely applications of this vehicular know-how are a lot more subtle -- but potentially a lot more interesting.

Hints from MBRDNA

The Mercedes-Benz Research & Development Center, North America Tim Stevens/CNET

Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, or MBRDNA as it's more tersely known, is the Silicon Valley epicenter for M-B's fancy thinking. I toured the facility when it opened in late 2013, and it is quite a place. Big and open and full of glass and brushed metal and, indeed, feeling very Apple-like.

That facility exists for a variety of reasons, perhaps chief among them establishing and building partnerships with other Valley startups, startups like Nest. Every room at MBRDNA has one or more of the smart thermostats stuck on the wall, 114 of the things overall.

Everyone in the Valley is networking like their lives depends on it, but this sort of relationship points to a more subtle thing at MBRDNA: a desperate desire to make the car the center of your smart, contextualized life.

For example, while I was there, Jungwirth's team showed off a concept of a smart ski roof rack. NFC sensors could be attached to your skis, and then those planks, when clipped onto the roof, would tell the car to automatically program the navigation unit to your fabulous vacation home in Lake Tahoe.

Touring the Mercedes-Benz Sunnyvale R&D center (pictures)

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Now that frankly sounds a little silly, but it gets better. Not only would the car program in the destination, but it would call ahead to the Nest thermostat in your extravagent chalet and make sure it comes perfectly up to temperature just in time for you to walk through the front door and kick off your Uggs. (You would, sadly, have to start your own cup of hot cocoa.)

That's a very limited, rather unlikely scenario for most of us, but you can see the intent: rely on contextual information around the car to make your life better. The biggest problem for Mercedes-Benz is that the information available about you through your car is limited to say the least. Partnering with startups like Nest and Pebble and others gives more portals through which the car can look into your life.

In a car, you really only know what a user is doing for a few hours a day at the most. At Apple, that job of contextualizing your life is a lot easier. With a smartphone in their pocket, smart watch on their wrist, computer on their desk and various cloud services hovering overhead at all times, a lack of contextual clues will no longer be a problem for Jungwirth and his team.

Building on CarPlay

Apple's CarPlay system, inside a Mercedes-Benz. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

If I had to guess, I'd say the most immediate thing we'll feel from this injection of automotive talent is a major boost to CarPlay. Tim Cook recently said that CarPlay is a "key to our future" at Apple, with the other two being HealthKit and HomeKit. So, it's reasonable to expect big investments here.

Apple CarPlay, the service in iOS that lets you safely access things like iTunes and Apple Maps from your dashboard, is a very young thing indeed, yet it's already making waves. Just about every major auto maker has pledged support -- including Mercedes-Benz -- and those who haven't surely will within the next year or so. When people see that they can stay connected while driving, and do so safely without breaking any distracted driving laws, they're going to want it (or Google's competing offering, Android Auto) in their next car.

But CarPlay is just a very simple thing right now, basically little more than a simplified view of iOS that's powered by your phone. No phone, no CarPlay.

CarPlay will grow over the next year or two to include more features and functions, and the number of apps that can be controlled through the service will balloon, but it isn't hard to imagine a future revision of the service that does away with the phone requirement altogether.

If your music is in the cloud, your contacts in the cloud, your calendar and messages and lots of other juicy info up there too, who needs a phone to bring it into the car?

Right now you do for two reasons: not all cars have active data connections, and auto manufacturers don't want Apple's software tied that closely into their dashboards. The first problem is rapidly disappearing, with more and more cars featuring cellular modems, while the second problem is really a question of willingness. That may take a little more time.

But, for the first brave car manufacturer to sign, the first car available with fully integrated Apple functionality could be quite a selling point. (Yes, I know having the first phone available with Apple functionality didn't work out well for the Moto Rokr, but I think we've all matured a lot in the 10 years since.)

A self-driving Apple?

Google's self-driving car. Google

That all sounds practical enough, but gosh a car from Cupertino sounds juicy. Could Apple really be working on building a one? It's certainly possible. Apple currently has $178 billion in cash floating around. It could buy all the outstanding shares of Ford if it wanted, and General Motors too, and still have plenty of reserves to build a facility big enough for all the world's Mustang and Camaro fans to come together and better understand each others' differences.

The better question is whether it makes sense for Apple to build a car in the first place. In my opinion the answer is no, not yet, but that could change soon. As we've seen, Apple has struggled to get a television off the ground. A car is far more complicated, certainly in terms of manufacturing but also in terms of certifying the thing to be road-legal. Hell, as Tesla has shown, even selling the things is a headache.

If it wanted to, Apple could out-source the whole mess and let someone else do the hard work on the hardware, which is exactly what Google has done for its self-driving cars (manufactured by Detroit-based Roush Industries). But you can bet that Apple would want to have a much bigger hand in controlling the specifics of the design -- if only to make sure they don't wind up looking like clown cars. This would mean a major team of experienced mechanical engineers and industrial designers.

Apple in the fast lane

Richard Scarry

We still don't know exactly what the automotive future of Apple looks like. For the record, when I politely asked Apple representatives to tell me they politely declined to comment. At a minimum, I know that Johann Jungwirth built an amazing team of talent around him at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, and I expect him to do the same at Apple.

In the near-term, look for CarPlay to get bigger and better. Look for it to get smarter at figuring out what you want and finding ways to give it to you, and then expect for Apple's services to get much more deeply integrated right in the car -- with or without a phone.

Update: As we go to press, WSJ is reporting that Apple is currently testing an electric minivan, dubbed "Titan." Nissan likely has some thoughts about the name, but there are few details about the construction or origin of this van. Needless to say, this is one story I'll be watching very closely.

Update, February 14 at 9:10 a.m. PT: Reuters is reporting that Apple is talking to car industry experts to learn how to build a self-driving electric car. The report cited an automotive source "familiar with the talks." Apple declined to comment "on rumor and speculation."