The Apple Car Was Basically A Volkswagen ID. Buzz With Autonomous Driving

The Apple Car is finally dead. And for such a massively important project—one that ate nearly a fifth of Apple’s R&D budget a decade ago and would’ve changed the company’s trajectory forever—it’s fascinating for how it died shrouded in mystery. Very few people outside Apple have ever even seen the prototypes, even today. Now we finally get a refresher on what it could’ve looked like, and maybe “Apple Van” was a better name for it.

That kicks off this Monday edition of Critical MaterialsAlso on deck today: Tesla veterans still dominate the battery business, and can the vehicle subscription model ever work? 

30%: Or The Apple Canoo, Even

Now that the Apple Car is dead, my guess is plenty of ex- and even current Apple employees are coming out of the woodwork to leak details about it to the press. (If you yourself feel so inclined, don’t be a stranger.) Last week Bloomberg had a nice deep-dive into what could’ve been, but it was also a lesson in Apple’s lack of focus and vision for something way outside its core competence. Here’s the roundup version

Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and other executives disagreed on what strategy to pursue, including whether to build a car at all, but also on minutia — like the individual gizmos in the car interior. A major point of contention was what level of autonomy to give the car. The scale ranges from 0 to 5, and Apple’s goals shifted several times throughout the project. At the same time, prospects for the overall EV market dimmed.

Against that backdrop, scrapping Apple’s car project wasn’t a mistake, especially since it frees up resources to focus on new generative AI features. But it’s still a massive disappointment that will alter the course of the company’s history, perhaps for decades to come.

I don’t agree at all with the “prospects for the overall EV market dimmed” assessment, as I think this had more to do with the realization that true full self-driving autonomy is probably many decades away from happening than anything else. But it does seem like Apple hung this project on self-driving, and that hasn’t worked out for anyone.

So what did the car look like? 

The Apple car’s circa-2020 design resembled the Canoo Lifestyle Vehicle — a futuristic van with rounded edges — but it had dark black windows with an adjustable tint. There was all-glass sunroof, a pure white exterior and whitewall tires with a black center. The front and back were identical, so it would always look like you were driving forward. It looked like no other mass-produced vehicle — and was optimized for full, Level 5 self-driving.

Though the car’s interior changed several times, the general idea was a minimalist interface — combined with seats you’d normally see on a private jet or a limousine. Inside, it felt like you were essentially in a “contoured bubble,” I’m told. This incarnation of the car could comfortably accommodate four people, with the seats being able to shift between normal chairs, recliners and foot rests.

That wasn’t the only vision for the Apple car. An earlier design dreamed up by the legendary Jony Ive looked like a modern reincarnation of the 1950s Volkswagen microbus. It was dubbed the Bread Loaf internally. The second version was an evolution of that and looked nearly identical to the 2017 Volkswagen ID Buzz prototype.

That design was shown off inside Apple well before VW ever announced its concept, and that may not be a coincidence. Some employees left the Apple car group for the German automaker in the mid-2010s. A third variation of the Apple car kept the same overall design, but had a far more dramatic front — like a wedge pointed downward. The fourth version was the model that looked more like the Canoo and brought fresh excitement to the project in 2020. Cook and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams were so impressed with the design that they gave a speech at Apple’s test track in Arizona and committed to push headlong into development.

The final product, that story says, was the “Bread Loaf” concept mixed with a Tesla Model X. Apple had to add a steering wheel and pedals back in when the autonomy stuff didn’t pan out, but it didn’t go much further than that.

Maybe Apple will do us all a solid and release the designs someday. We’d all love to see them.

60%: Want EV And Battery Expertise? Hire A Tesla Person

This probably won’t surprise anyone, but veterans of Tesla now dominate much of the senior ranks of the major, non-Chinese and Korean EV and battery companies. They include Doug Field at Ford (who used to run the Apple Car project, naturally), Kurt Kelty at General Motors, Peter Rawlinson, who founded and leads Lucid Motors, JB Straubel at battery recycling company Redwood Materials, and many, many more. 

Here’s a look at the powerful and influential Tesla diaspora from The Information (subscription required): 

As we have reported, Tesla veterans such as [Peak Energy CEO Landon] Mossburg dominate the top ranks of startups and established companies throughout the EV and battery industries, from lithium mining to the manufacture of electrodes, batteries, and EVs. In all, we identified more than 80 former Tesla employees now helping to run other EV and battery companies, from startups to giants like General Motors and Ford.

A key question we’ve sought to answer with this project is why Tesla is so overrepresented at the top of other companies. One simple answer is that Tesla may simply attract Type A employees who naturally tend to want to run a company. Another is Tesla’s cachet—to investors, the Tesla credential represents instant credibility for an entrepreneur raising money for a startup or for a startup hiring its first executives.

Tesla seems to convince its employees that they can tackle the industry’s biggest, most complex problems. The company cultivates a holistic understanding of the industry—Tesla veterans often think big, in a way that’s necessary to found a company. At Peak Energy, for instance, Mossburg is attempting to commercialize a sodium-ion battery, an ultracheap new chemistry that could play a big role in energy storage and small, urban EVs, if his team can resolve shortcomings such as its low energy density.

We’re increasingly seeing established automakers (like a few of those above) turn to ex-Tesla executives to get their EV, battery and software operations at the level they need to be at. In other words, he may not like to admit it, but Tesla’s influence on the EV world now extends far beyond just Elon Musk and his companies.

90%: The Car Subscription Model Still Hasn’t Taken Off

We’ve been hearing this for years now: “In the future, you won’t own your car, you’ll just subscribe to it.” But that idea is starting to feel as paper-thin and contingent as the idea of fully autonomous driving. Basically, very few car subscription programs have taken off and profits have proven extremely scarce. Here’s Automotive News:

Subscription programs offering by-the-month vehicle access made a big splash when they first arrived and tried to shake up the leasing market. None, however, had a widespread impact in the U.S. Now, the few startups and programs still in operation are trying to find the right pricing and logistical models to survive.

“There are very specific use cases that do work, but I don’t think it is a high volume” model, Ken Sopp, president of Credit Union Leasing of America, told Automotive News.

Getting the subscription model right is tough; it is capital-intensive and asset-heavy with tight margins. But subscription providers such as Autonomy are working to gain a foothold in the U.S. And automakers such as Porsche, Volvo and Hyundai offer subscriptions in select locations.

Vehicle subscriptions typically work as an open-ended lease with a set monthly payment and sometimes money down upfront. The customer has control over how long they keep the vehicle and can often turn it in at any time.

Great in theory. In reality, they’re capital-intensive, hard to maintain and may just not be worth it financially for drivers. Case in point: 

Hyundai’s Evolve+ program takes a niche approach to this challenging market. Only two vehicles — both electric vehicles — are available for subscribers: the Kona Electric for $699 per month and the Ioniq 5 for $899 a month.

Many services bundle insurance and maintenance plans in subscription offerings. By doing this, they build in sources of profit over multiple subscription cycles instead of just the typical lease cycle.

But any InsideEVs reader knows that these days, if you hunt around, you can find a far cheaper lease—or even purchase—deal for some of those EVs. Sure, these deals often include insurance and other costs, but are they really worth it over “owning” or leasing something? I’m not sure many drivers see things that way.

100%: Would You Ever ‘Subscribe’ To A Car?

The closest I’ve ever come is when I was a Zipcar subscriber when I moved to Washington, D.C. about 12 years ago now. I moved there without a car for a few months and Zipcar was fine, but given how often I used it (and the late fees if you got stuck in a traffic jam, which was all of the time) made it just not worth it in the end. It was cheaper to buy a car, which I did instead. Plus, I missed having my own car. 

Does this model work for you? Would you ever consider it over full car ownership?

 

 

 

 

 

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