Is Apple working on a car? Not yet. They are building an automotive operating system.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs

Word has leaked out that in a secret project codenamed Titan,  “Apple is working on a car.” There are even far-fetched suggestions, based on a 1999 concept car created by a designer who now works for Apple, that it will look like this:

Apple car 1Apple car 3Apple Car 4apple car 2

There are some interesting ideas there, like swiveling seats and a pull-out drawer trunk, but, no, the Apple car will not look like a polished-up Soviet era car for the proletariat. It certainly won’t have analog dials in the dashboard.

But speculation about the car’s looks misses the point. The reputedly 1000-strong Titan team is probably not putting much thought into “the veneer” at this point.
That’s because before it designs the physical car, Apple is going to build an operating system for it. The Apple car won’t be like your father’s Oldsmobile: an assemblage of mechanical systems, some of them controlled by computers that don’t talk much to each other. The car of the future will be an integrated operating system housed in a vehicle. Call it AutoOS.

When I was growing up, the “car of the future” was one that could fly. Or at least hover over the ground and travel without wheels. To the designers of the day, getting off the ground seemed to be the natural progression of things. But following the natural progression is a mistake — making a transformative leap is the challenge.

Think of it this way. Early cell phones simply duplicated the age-old functionality of electro-mechanical home phones. They needed to be hard-wired into your car, and did nothing new other than permitting phone calls to be made while driving around. Sort of. Even when the technology permitted portable cell phones, they had no functionality except voice communication. Those cell phones were just phones; they accomplished nothing new except untethering from a network of copper wires.

Old cellphoneGradually, some clunky digital functionality was added, which enabled cell phones to maintain address books, serve as alarm clocks, and maintain simple appointment calendars. Next came text-messaging, and finally more complete PDA (personal digital assistant) functions and limited web browsing. But amazing as they were at the time, those phones were still phones with nice bells and whistles. Even the once ubiquitous Blackberry was used mainly for calls and texting. 

It was not until Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 that we saw an information device that happened to make phone calls. A true smartphone. And that’s because Apple started its development not by building a physical phone, but by creating a powerful mobile operating system around the touch-screen technology it had developed, originally as a potential computer interface. Apple didn’t re-imagine the cellphone; it came up with a completely new thing: a portable entertainment, information and communication gadget.

This evolution from the single-function black desk phone to today’s mobile information devices makes clear why digital gadgetry tacked on to other electromechanical appliances has not caught on, while other tools conceived around operating systems that enable completely new functionalities are successful. For example, “smart refrigerators” have gone nowhere fast. They are still just big boxes that keep food cold, and having a screen on them that gives you the weather forecast, or a sensor that that reminds you to pick up milk and eggs, are not functions most people needs or want. A fridge with a screen and an internet connection is not an operating system for food storage.

But the Roomba, a smart vacuum cleaner — one that has navigational technology enabling  it to clean the house all by itself, on a schedule, and plug itself back in when it runs low on juice — there’s an operating system that completely transformed a boring piece of century-old technology.  Similarly, the Nest thermostat rethought a simple regulatory gadget by giving it an operating system. Perhaps when somebody forgets the existing refrigerator and builds an operating system for food storage, and then conceives of the hardware to put it in, we’ll have a transformation of the refrigerator.

Personal computers followed a similar pattern. Before the desktop PC came along, the engineers had followed the predictable line of computerizing the traditional mechanical and electric typewriter with added capabilities. In the 1970s, Wang, IBM, Lanier and others introduced single-function “word processors” that fit on desktops. They had computerized a portion of the job of the secretary, but these machines could do only one thing. Not until PCs and their operating systems came along in the 1980s did we have a multi-functional desktop computer.

Apple has considered, and hesitated to move forward on, a reinvention of the living room TV. Steve Jobs defined the goal, telling his biographer Walter Isaacson: “I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.”

But later on, without divulging exactly what it was he had cracked, Jobs said: “TV is a terrible business. They don’t turn over and the margins suck.” What happened? Apple figured out that televisions are really not capable of transformation into something more than what they already are. You can build an operating system for a television, but it will still be a television — a thing you sit in front of and it entertains you. (The hope for an Apple TV doesn’t die easily, though. Just wait until 2016!)

Maybe margins are better on watches and cars. For its watch, Apple again ditched the old time-telling functionality and the incremental add-ons watches had received, and reinvented an operating system from scratch to create, not a watch, but a wrist-worn information device.

So let’s get back to cars. In general, cars have followed the development pattern of phones before the iPhone. They are still boxes full of mechanical systems designed to get you from one place to another, albeit with a number of digital systems incorporated in them to improve the experience. Various computers in cars control, monitor or enhance navigation, fuel usage, safety, efficiency, entertainment, communication and comfort.   But today’s cars do not have true operating systems, in which all of these functions are integrated, and in which completely new functionalities are incorporated.

Tesla is the one exception that verges on having a transformational operating system. Tesla’s Vehicle Management System controls nearly every controllable function on the car, and displays what it’s doing on a versatile touch screen. The operating system enables remote diagnostics, and receives automatic updates from time to time, some of which actually tweak the operating algorithms to improve the car’s power efficiency. But ultimately, slick as it is, Tesla’s integrated operating system basically incorporates and replicates functions that can be found on most high-end cars.

Tesla OS
The Tesla Vehicle Management System


Can Apple take the transformative step, creating an automotive operating system that truly redefines the experience of getting into a box with four wheels and going somewhere? That’s what 1000 people on the Project Titan team are trying to figure out. What the car will look like is not the question. How it works is the key. What will Apple build into a car that no other car offers today?

Here are some of the questions I’m guessing Project Titan is putting a lot of effort into:

  • Does it have to be an electric car? Can smart technology enable a car to run on gasoline or natural gas with zero emissions through a carbon sequestration technique?
  • Does it have to be a “driverless” car? Realistically, driverless technology is going to have its limitations — for example, driving in the blizzards we’ve been having here in the Northeast. Would it make more sense to design “assisted driving” modes that can just take over on low-risk, boring stretches of highway driving, or handle the challenging task of parallel parking? An operating system with this functionality could be automatically updated, Tesla-style, from time to time to permit the car to handle more tasks.
  • What kind of information technology should it have? Cars already have pretty slick “infotainment” packages. What can Apple improve and expand on? Tesla’s user interface is cool but in some ways provides information overkill. Will Apple boil it down to essentials, as it has often done in other products?
  • How well can it be adapted to the individual driver? Could 3-D printing technology produce a seat that’s just right for you?
  • Are there transformational safety technologies that could be applied?
  • Are there better ways to do GPS? Something more intuitive than the standard approaches?
  • imac jellybeanWill it look like a jellybean? Like that self-driving car that Google has shown us? Not likely. Apple left jellybeans behind with the iMac G3 desktop.



Followup, August 22, 2017:

The New York Times reports (emphasis added):

These days, Apple’s automotive ambitions are more modest. The company has put off any notion of an Apple-branded autonomous vehicle and is instead working on the underlying technology that allows a car to drive itself. Timothy D. Cook, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview with Bloomberg in June that Apple is “focusing on autonomous systems.”


Mr. Mansfield shelved plans to build a car and focused the project on the underlying self-driving technology. He also laid off some hardware staff, though the exact number of employees dedicated to working on car technology was unclear.

More recently, the team has grown again, adding personnel with expertise in autonomous systems, rather than car production.

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