Apple and the End of the Car
Share Button

Apple and the End of the Car

As cars become computers with wheels, Apple is eyeing the $5 trillion auto market.

By Christopher Mims
Tue, May 25, 2021 5:55amGrey Clock 6 min

Now that the car is evolving into essentially a smartphone on wheels, it’s no wonder Apple is kicking the tyres.

First, there is the transition from internal combustion engines to electric motors, which have far fewer mechanical parts. Now, enabled by that change, a second shift is under way—one that’s a prerequisite for a self-driving future.

For a century, the automobile was a system of interoperating mechanics: engine, transmission, drive shaft, brakes, etc. As those mechanics evolved, electronic sensors and processors were brought in to assist them, but the concepts changed little. The result was cars with dozens or hundreds of specialized microchips that didn’t talk to each other. Now that auto makers are moving to electric motors, elaborate entertainment systems and adaptive cruise control, cars need central computers to control all these things—why not use them to control everything?

At the hardware level, this might just mean fewer chips handling more of a car’s functions. Yet it has profound implications for what future cars will be capable of, how car makers will make money, and who will survive—and thrive—in what could soon be a global automotive industry made unrecognizable to us today.

No one inside Apple is saying exactly what its plans are, but the company has been contemplating a role in autos for years, spending huge sums on hiring hundreds, then eliminating their roles when its priorities change, and almost as quickly hiring other engineers with similar skill sets, then firing yet more engineers, all to realize a still-mysterious ultimate vision.

The company also recently approached auto makers including Hyundai about a potential manufacturing partnership, then saw talks fizzle. It’s just as likely Apple is, as usual, experimenting until or unless it hits on something it thinks it can do better than anyone else.

“We have seen enough echoes in the supply chain that we know Apple is really looking into every detail of car engineering and car manufacturing,” says Peter Fintl, director of technology and innovation for Capgemini Engineering Germany, part of a multinational that works with dozens of auto makers and parts manufacturers. “But nobody knows if what Apple creates will be a car or a tech platform or a mobility service,” he adds.

Many other tech companies, including Intel, Nvidia, Huawei, Baidu, Amazon and Google parent Alphabet, are pushing into the usually staid, conservative and relatively low-margin world of automobiles and their parts. Meanwhile, traditional auto makers like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Daimler and Volkswagen, plus longtime automotive suppliers such as Bosch, ZF and Magna, are trying to behave more like those tech companies.

Basically, everyone is shifting their emphasis to software—and hiring like crazy to do it. In the past year, almost every major automotive company has advertised that it would like to hire many more software developers. Volkswagen, for example, announced in March 2019 that it would add 2,000 to its technical development team; the company already employs thousands of software engineers.

“Software is eating the world, and cars are next on the menu,” says Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures, a venture-capital fund owned by the car maker.

From hardware to software

Today’s most complicated automobiles have up to 200 computers in them, just smart enough to do their jobs controlling everything from the engine and automatic braking system to the air conditioner and in-dash entertainment, says Johannes Deichmann, a partner at McKinsey whose expertise is software and electronics in automobiles. These computers, made by an assortment of suppliers, tend to run proprietary software, making them largely inaccessible even to the auto maker.

Such modularity is fine up to a point—when building a Chevy Malibu, does GM really need to know how the windshield-wiper computer works? Yet the proliferation of these narrow-minded processors has led to unsustainable complexity, says Mr. Deichmann.

Tesla, as you might imagine, has been instrumental in pushing the auto industry in a new direction. Since the first Model S, Tesla pioneered replacing hundreds of small computers with a handful of bigger, more powerful ones, says Jan Becker, chief executive of, a Palo Alto-based automotive-software startup. Systems that used to require dedicated microchips now run in separate software modules instead.

This is why Tesla can add new capabilities to its vehicles through over-the-air updates, he adds. Want better acceleration, longer range, an enhanced self-driving system, or your in-dash entertainment system to play fart noises every time you flip your turn signal? Tesla has shown they’re just a software upgrade away. It’s very much like the model of continual updates to the software in our mobile devices we’ve come to expect.

Following suit, auto makers are scrambling to build or commission their own whole-car operating systems. The field is still wide open, says Mr. Fintl. Nvidia offers its Drive OS, VW and Daimler have announced they are, like Tesla, working on their own, and Google is insinuating itself ever deeper into vehicles through its Android Auto OS. To date, it’s still focused on in-dash entertainment and navigation, but Ford recently announced that as of 2023, it will use Android in the displays of all models sold outside of China—including the just-revealed Ford F-150 Lightning—and will also use Google to help manage the data streams collected from its vehicles. GM is also using Android in its all-electric Hummer.

This is where Apple might face a tough decision: While it has the chance to flex its enormous software and chip-making expertise to create a next-generation platform for the highest bidder, the company tends to create products for its own brand, not components for others. Besides, the strategy of being just another supplier to auto makers is already being pursued by Intel (via Mobileye), Alphabet (via Waymo and Android Auto), Nvidia and others.

The enormous complexity and expense of making and delivering vehicles by the thousands, much less millions—and making them safe—are why so many tech companies are joining forces with automobile companies, rather than trying to build their own vehicles, says Ryan Robinson, automotive research leader at Deloitte.

While analysts for years predicted that big auto makers would make short work of Tesla, it turns out electric vehicles are more about software than hardware. And auto makers aren’t yet good at the kind of software today’s cars and drivers demand. Volkswagen decided last June that, despite years of development, it had to delay the debut of a flagship electric vehicle because its software wasn’t ready.

Enter Apple

“This is the big industry mystery, if a famous fruit company is entering the game,” says Mr. Deichmann.

Apple already has its CarPlay in-dash interface for iPhones. But it’s limited to functions such as entertainment and navigation, and has nothing to do with the deeper integration and capabilities required of a true vehicle operating system. Apple has also demonstrated tremendous capabilities in designing the kinds of microchips and sensors that a smart automobile would require, though for now they’re mainly found in iPhones, iPads and Macs.

Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Apple could build an operating system for a whole vehicle, and run it on its own silicon. But the company seeks to vertically integrate whenever possible, to control every aspect of the user experience. So the question is: Would a car maker let Apple treat it as the company once treated AT&T, when it first rolled out its iPhone? Or the music labels, when it launched iTunes? At a stroke, it turned the tables and took control of massive markets and significant portions of our lives.

This February, Apple’s partnership talks with Hyundai broke down, possibly over Hyundai’s concerns about being absorbed into the Apple Borg. Immediately after, Nissan signalled it might be willing to work with Apple.

If there is any tech company on earth with the resources to go it alone, building a new automaker from the ground up, it’s Apple. But there is no indication this is the company’s aim. If Tesla is the model here, it’s unclear why Apple’s executives would want to endure the tortuous process of building the manufacturing, testing and service capacities this path would require.

If providing the brains for other auto makers’ vehicles is unlikely, and competing directly with Tesla and every other electric vehicle startup unsavoury, that still leaves another option for Apple. As the automotive industry inches toward self-driving taxi services, Apple’s persistence in both acquiring and developing software and hardware for electric, autonomous vehicles could signal its long-term ambitions. Could an Apple mobility company, instead of an Apple car, make the most sense?

GM’s Cruise, Amazon’s Zoox and many others are already moving down this path. But since no such robot-taxi service yet exists, save for some limited experiments by Waymo in Arizona, there is potential for Apple to create something it controls completely, while also providing significant additional revenue to a struggling automaker such as Nissan.

Apple and others could design and commission vehicles that bear their branding, and operate as part of a service they provide, with no trace of the actual manufacturer on them, says Mr. Deichmann.

Apple, after all, isn’t an electronics manufacturer. In fact, it outsources all of its manufacturing, much of it to Foxconn—which as it happens is building up its own auto-making capabilities. Rather, Apple is first and foremost a customer-focused company that uses technical know-how to develop products physically made by contractors like Foxconn. It just happens that deep technical expertise is how it realizes its leaders’ visions. And because fully autonomous driving is turning out to be much harder than anyone predicted, Apple could have the time it would need to develop its own service.

It’s quite possible that Apple will end up spending billions on attempts to develop an electric car without ever releasing a product. Or maybe it offers a product or service that fizzles. It’s possible that transportation is so different in scope and complexity from personal and mobile computing that the only way to succeed is through the kind of grand-scale collaboration Apple isn’t known for.

Toyota chief Akio Toyoda said in March that Apple should prepare itself for a 40-year commitment if it offers cars to consumers. This makes sense, especially if the goal turns out to be not merely to create a car, but to replace a significant portion of the world’s 1.4 billion cars with a completely autonomous, emissions-free, radically transformed transportation system. In other words, a trillion-dollar revolution—and Apple’s already pulled off one of those.


What a quarter-million dollars gets you in the western capital.

Alexandre de Betak and his wife are focusing on their most personal project yet.

Related Stories
Why It’s Easier Than You Think to Score a Coveted Table When Visiting Paris for the Olympics
By SHIVANI VORA 22/06/2024
Celebrations Big and Small Are Getting Longer and More Extravagant for the Rich
By SHIVANI VORA 21/06/2024
Fashion’s Boring-and-Expensive Era Is Over
Sat, Jun 22, 2024 4 min

Savvy travellers who plan their trips around dining at their destination’s most in-demand restaurants know that securing a reservation at a top Paris eatery isn’t an easy proposition on any given day.

Come the Olympics in July, when the city is flooded with tourists, one would expect the jockey sport to snag a table to be that much more intense. But that’s not necessarily shaping up to be the case. As of mid-May, Parisian insiders such as hotel managers, restaurant owners, and local luxury concierges reported that inquiries at sought-after spots were no higher than usual, foretelling a potential opportunity for visitors looking for a fine-dining experience during the games.

The time to book falls over the next few weeks given that many top spots don’t take reservations until one month before the dining date.

The Michelin-starred Jean Imbert Au Plaza Athenee and Le Relais Plaza, both at Hotel Plaza Athenee and helmed by the renowned French chef Jean Imbert, are two examples.

Francois Delahaye, the COO of the Dorchester Collection, a hospitality company that includes the Plaza Athenee and a second Paris property, Le Meurice, says that his regular guests who are visiting for the games and Parisians who frequent the restaurants know not to call too far in advance of when they want to dine.

Further, he doesn’t foresee reservations being a challenge at either venue or at Le Meurice’s two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse.

“Booking for the restaurants won’t be an issue because people are planning meals at the last minute,” Delahaye says. “Also, the people who are in Paris specifically for the Olympics are here for the games, not to eat at restaurants. They’re not the big-spending clientele that we usually get.”

Delahaye doesn’t expect the kinds of peak crowds that descend on fine dining during Fashion Week each spring and autumn, for example, when trying to land a seat at the three eateries is nearly impossible. “People are fighting to get in,” he says. “You need to book through your hotel’s concierge, have an inside source, or be a hotel or restaurant regular.”

Several Paris luxury concierge companies echoed Delahaye’s perspective

Manuel de Croutte, the founder of Exclusive & Private, says that Paris regulars probably aren’t planning a trip when the Olympics transpire—from July 26 to Aug. 11—because they want to avoid the tourist rush. “We’ve gotten some reservation requests from people who’ve heard about us but not nearly as many as we usually get when the very wealthy travellers are here,” he says.

During peak periods like the French Open or Fashion Week, de Croutte says that his job entails making bookings for travellers who don’t have any other way to get into buzzy or Michelin-starred establishments.

“You’re unlikely to get a table at a see-and-be-seen place without knowing someone,” de Croutte says. “No one picks up the phone or answers email.” He says his team has established relationships with managers and owners of many of the hot spots in Paris and often visits them in person to land tables.

Exclusive & Private’s Black Book of Paris restaurant recommendations for Olympic visitors span a broad range, from casual bistros to fine-dining.

Michelin eateries include the three-star Le Gabriel at La Reserve, the two-star Le Clarence near the Champs-Elysee, and the two-star Le Taillevent.

Spots without a Michelin star but equally notable are also on de Croutte’s list: L’ Ami Jean offers traditional and flavourful southwestern French cuisine, Allard is a brasserie from Alain Ducasse, and Laurent serves French food to a fashionable set.

“My favourite neighbourhood for restaurants is Saint Germain de Pres,” de Croutte says. “You’ll find unassuming but chic names with excellent food and a great vibe. You can book with these places directly if you’re here for the Olympics, but don’t wait until the last minute because they will get filled.”

He also cautions that some Paris eateries are asking for nonrefundable prepayments for reservations during the Olympics.

“Be sure you want to go before committing and ask about the refund policy if you are charged,” he says.

Stephanie Boutet-Fajol, the founder of Sacrebleu Paris, says her bespoke travel company charges a lump sum of about US$750 to make all the restaurant bookings for the Olympic period, though the price varies depending on the dates and the number of restaurants that a client requests. “Reservations around the closing ceremony are harder to come by because that’s when more elite travelers are coming to Paris and want the chic restaurants that are always difficult to get a table at,” she says.

Meanwhile, chefs at some Michelin-starred restaurants share that they have tables available during the Olympics and welcome travellers to their establishments.

Thibaut Spiwack, for one, behind the Michelin-starred Anona, serving modern French cuisine, and the culinary consultant for the popular Netflix series Emily in Paris , says that he is open for reservations.

“My team and I look forward to sharing a culinary experience with new clientele that I hope will remain in their memory,” he says.

Spiwack suggests that travellers check out other worthwhile restaurants where he himself dines. For terrific wine, there’s Lava, and for Italian, he likes Epoca where the pastas are “divine.” Janine is the best bistro in town, and Prima wins for a pizza fix, he says.

“You have a lot of restaurants in Paris to pick from,” Spiwack says. “You just need to determine where you want to go, and book as soon as you can.”