Rumors of Apple’s project to build an electric car to rival Tesla Motors—allegedly codenamed “Titan”—have been swirling for weeks. On Friday, 9to5Mac compiled a list of employees who are supposedly on the Apple Car team. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that Apple has plans to produce its cars by the year 2020.
But in a rush to imagine themselves speeding down the road in a shiny new iCar, many Apple fans and critics alike may be thinking about Titan from the wrong angle. Titan may not actually be an “Apple Car” at all. What if Titan is a Trojan Horse, designed to convince automakers to adopt a new, car-optimized operating system so Apple can rule your commute?
Many Apple Car skeptics have rightfully brought up some important facts about the realities of making a car. Last week, Dan Akerson, former CEO of General Motors, weighed in with his doubts on Apple’s ability to jump into the auto industry.
“I would be highly suspect of the long-term prospect of getting into a low-margin, heavy-manufacturing,” Akerson told Bloomberg in an interview.
He added, “They’d better think carefully if they want to get into the hard-core manufacturing. We take steel, raw steel, and turn it into car. They have no idea what they’re getting into if they get into that.”
Akerson’s not wrong. Producing a modern vehicle that gets people from point A to point B without getting banged up by accidents is a very different ballgame from commissioning Asian factories to build gadgets that slip into your pocket.
Just because Apple’s building a prototype car, though, doesn’t mean it’ll actually handle production on its own—there’s already a whole industry of auto contract manufacturers who have the know-how to bring a car from concept to production. Titan could simply be a prototype designed to show carmakers how to build electric vehicles for the future—with Apple software at the center of the experience.
Watch And Learn
This is more or less what Apple’s rival Google already does in other areas. Google designs its Nexus line of smartphones to run “pure” Android, free from the bloat that other handset makers are often compelled to pre-install on their phones.
Each Nexus is produced by a different hardware partner—the Galaxy Nexus, Nexii 4& 5, and 6 were made by Samsung, LG, and Motorola respectively. While none have been big sellers, they’ve been a hit with hardcore Android fans, and have provided a blueprint of Google’s vision for mobile devices.
See also: Why Google’s Driverless Car Is Evil
Google appears to be doing something similar with its driverless-car program, and it’s easy to imagine that Apple could take the same tack with whatever Titan prototype it’s building right now. Apple might simply show its car to automakers and say “this is how you do it.” And once car companies get the message, Apple will be in a perfect position to create a whole new software ecosystem to hook drivers and developers.
iPhones On Wheels
Apple is best at designing products with screens and batteries. Electric cars, as you may have noticed, also have screens and batteries. Apple shouldn’t have too much trouble leveraging its experience making iPhones and iPods into creating a functional whole-car operating system, one that gives drivers control of the vehicle and its media.
If Apple can show automakers the benefits of adopting its car-optimized operating system—either CarPlay or something new and more holistic as an OS—Apple can reinvent driving much the same way it reinvented media consumption with the iPod and iTunes.
Right now, developing software for use on car dashboards is a nightmare. Every automaker has its own take on the kind of software that drivers should be able to access, and—with the exception of Tesla—they’re all a generation or two behind the rest of the consumer tech we use every day.
If Apple could get its operating system powering a greater number of cars, suddenly app developers will have a viable platform for their wares.
Build It And They Will Come
We’ve seen this scenario before. Before the iPhone came along, mobile phones relied on all sorts of different operating systems. As a result, developing apps and games for mobile devices was a major pain.
Once the iPhone became ubiquitous, though, developers suddenly saw a path to downloads and dollars by building new apps. Android’s subsequent arrival and widespread adoption gave developers another platform to worry about—but only one other platform. Between iPhones and Android phones, users had a good chance of bumping into their products.
Titan may be Apple’s attempt to repeat its iPhone software successes: Give developers a widely adopted platform to build and sell apps. Collect revenue from software sales. Repeat. Get rich. (Well, at least the lucky few.)
When shopping for a new car in five years, we may be at the dealership trying to figure out if we want one that’s red or blue, two-door or four-door—TitanOS or AndroidAuto.
[Correction, Feb. 24: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that the Nexus 4 was made by Samsung; it was actually made by LG, while the Galaxy Nexus was made by Samsung. This post has been updated to reflect this.]
Lead image courtesy of Apple