Apple may very well be building a car. The tech rumour mill has been in a frenzy about this since last week.
In the auto industry, there’s a bit more head-scratching going on. Why would a company that seems to be able to print money with gigantic high-profit-margin-money-printing press want to get into a notoriously modest-margin, capital-intensive business with upgrade cycles that can run for over 10 years (the average age of a car on the US roads is currently 11 years)?
But whatever. Apple will do what Apple will do. I think it’s more likely that the company is working on connected-car or self-driving technology to match Google, which has a big head start. I can’t imagine that Apple wants its CarPlay technology to be outdone by Google’s Android, which is occupying some prime real estate on automotive dashboards these days (Audi, for example).
But one of the rumours about “Project Titan” has caught my eye in particular: that the Apple Car is some kind of minivan.
Yes, a minivan.
A black minivan with a sensor rig bolted to the top has been spotted in the Bay Area and is reportedly being operated by Apple to some secretive end.
Frankly, it looks a little like what the Google self-driving car did, before Google refined the form. Google strapped a bunch of tech on top of a Toyota Prius:
It has since reduced all that to a small unit that looks a bit like an old-fashioned police siren:
Google Street View mapping cars still have the elaborate tech on top. So maybe that’s the function of the stuff on the top of the Apple minivan. And it’s been fairly well established that one of the keys to an effective self-driving car, not to mention an appealing suite of in-car connected technologies, is excellent maps.
In any case, maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel pretty comfortable declaring that if Apple is undertaking a blue-sky car project, the result will not be a minivan.
Minivans are terrific vehicles, but the car of the the future they are not. In fact, the minivan that Apple is using in the all these rumour reports is pretty much the definition of old-school: it’s a Dodge Caravan, a direct descendant of the first minivans that Chrysler created decades ago.
Minivan sales do fine, for the most part, but the market is represented by effectively three companies and three models. Toyota has the bestselling Sienna, Honda has the highly regarded Odyssey, and Chrysler has the Caravan/Town & Country.
Sales have also been sliding as Americans have been buying more full-size and compact SUVs. The key market for minivans is also families that value utility and safety over luxury and style. To a certain extent, if you’re in the market for a minivan, you’re not in the market for a masterpiece of automotive design or innovation.
However, minivans do have nice, big roofs. Perfect for supporting a bunch of cameras and sensors, with lots of room inside for other kinds of computer hardware. Also, they tend to have an enormous number of cup holders.
If Apple plans to create an actual car, it has better be thinking of an SUV-type product. That’s where Tesla is headed, with its forthcoming Model X. It also seems likely that the Tesla Model 3, due to arrive in 2017, will feature compact-SUV versatility.
Now that I think about it, as the Google self-driving car evolved, some SUVs (“crossovers,” actually, a type of more refined, less truck-like SUV) were outfitted with the technology:
We might as well go into all this with an open mind. Apple could most certainly be building a car. But Apple is most definitely not building a minivan.
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