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Will Apple build a car?

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Will Apple build a car? That’s the question everyone’s been asking since word got out last year that an Apple car was in the works. But even with tech insiders like Elon Musk calling the project “an open secret,” not everyone is convinced. We asked CNET editor at large, Brian Cooley, for his take.

The Ride: Let’s get right to it. Is Apple going to make a car?
Cooley: I’m going to be the contrarian here. I’m going to bet no. I think they have a major effort going on in automotive, but the iPhone seems to have hit peak iPhone, so they need another major product category that is also going to be enormously high profit and that only describes automotive halfway. Auto is a big category, but automotive is not high profit, so I’ve got some doubts that they really want to get into a business that is so hemmed in by regulation and that has relatively low margins. Apple will be known at the end of the day for as much as they’ve done to revolutionize profitability as technology.

The Ride: What part of automotive will Apple get into if not with an entire car?
Cooley: Just about everything short of that. Look at the big three things happening in cars right now. This is going to be the biggest era of change going forward in the next couple decades that we’ve seen in the last 100 years, and that’s electrification, connectivity and autonomy. Those big three are all right in Apple’s wheelhouse in many ways. They’re all about software and sensors and using electricity efficiently through electronics to get great battery life, so that’s why Apple has a lot of cards to play in terms of what they will do as a contributor to automotive technology. I’m just not so sure that they want to go whole hog and get into the business of building cars to be sold in showrooms by independent dealers. Can you imagine Tim Cook’s head exploding if he has to relinquish control of what the experience is when you go to buy a car because that’s not how it works to a franchise dealer and they’re very much they’re own entity.

The Ride: My question has to do with the apple ego. Isn’t there a culture of we’re going to do it? We’re going to create a new category like they did with the iPhone and the iPad where there was nothing.
Cooley: I think that ego is very strong, and they wouldn’t describe it as ego. They would describe it as vision and independence, which Apple has had a great degree of. Apple’s ability to envision a future, like in automotive, that is fundamentally different and to communicate it clearly is really unique about that company. They didn’t have the first smart phone. They don’t invent a lot of categories, but they bring them to legitimacy and public comprehension like nobody else. So that’s where Apple needs to understand their role is to maybe reinvent automotive electronics.

The Ride: Let’s say they go forward with this, that the 1,000 people they’ve hired are actively working on a car. The big question is what is it going to look like?
Cooley: Apple has a great touch for industrial design. Everything that they make pretty much looks beautiful. They have an understanding that that makes something covetable beyond its function and its specs. Most other auto makers don’t get this.