For those of you unable to attend this week’s Geneva International Motor Show, the pre-convention talk centered on two of the tech world’s biggest players’ desire to get into the car business.
Talk about a public relations coup. Neither tech company is even at the show, yet both are sucking up the Switzerland convention-space oxygen, leaving both domestic and overseas automakers concerned.
As Jack Ewing of The New York Times reported: “Apple and Google…are using their domination of smartphone operating systems to take over car dashboards, elbowing aside the carmakers’ proprietary systems. Someday, they or other upstarts could try to build entire vehicles. Apple has reportedly assembled a team of about 200 people to develop technologies for an electric car.”
We’ve already seen Google’s attempt at developing an autonomous car that would drive itself and – provided the technology works flawlessly – avoid accidents and allow driver and passengers to work, play Candy Crush, nap, or eat a Denny’s Grand Slam on their way to the office.
But, as Ewing points out, Apple and Google and their tech-giant colleagues have yet to face car-manufacturing reality:
- It takes at least seven years to develop and sell a car, compared with 18 months for a smartphone
- Auto manufacturing relies on a complex network of suppliers, not just a handful of low-wage factories in China
- A car is a much more complex machine then the relatively simple smartphone
We never count out Apple or Google, of course. Given enough funding and the right staffing, both companies could dive into car and truck manufacturing anytime they desired. They wouldn’t make much profit – at least initially – but that has never stopped Silicon Valley before.
In the April Car and Driver, editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman notes: “Countless pieces of research already confirm that buyers care more about a new car’s infotainment system than its engine.” In a more tongue-in-cheek fashion, he writes: “We should…reimagine the car itself as a magical device that can transport you to the world of your fantasies – kind of like an iPhone but with, y’know, the actual capability of physically transporting you to a real place. The solution must certainly be to adopt all of the conventions and sleights of hand so fruitfully employed by the electronics business, including the freedom to launch products before they’re fully baked.”
Since beta versions of products and frequent software updates are part of Apple and Google’s modus operandi (modi operandorum?), pivoting company culture to launching products that are as fully baked as possible might prove impossible.
But if anyone can, as the putative cool kids say, “disrupt” the car business, it will most likely be Apple or Google or Microsoft or maybe even Facebook (Click “like” if you are enjoying your new SUV).
The challenge will be to develop, safe, fool-proof, attractive, reasonably-priced, quality vehicles that can be serviced and refueled or recharged almost anywhere. BWM, Mazda, Ford, GM, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan, and the others have been doing this for decades. They know how to make crankshafts, pistons, suspensions, steering linkages, and the thousands of other components work as a whole.
“Car companies can’t afford to create works in progress,” writes Alterman. “No amount of magical thinking will keep carmakers from paying for their slip-ups, and they shouldn’t be seduced by the siren call of Silicon Valley. Such radically higher stakes are proof enough that cars are more important than phones.”
Nearly every automotive company has experienced the communications and PR nightmare of faulty equipment. From exploding tires to lethal air bags to faulty ignition switches, the car companies know malfunctions will earn as much bad press as malfeasance. And, sadly, both can be fatal.
Our advice: If the iCar ever does go on sale, and if you decide to buy or lease one, you would be well advised to have a standing appointment at the Apple Genius Bar.