Cook kills off the Apple Car speculation, and that's a good thing

Despite endless mockups and fanboy fantasies, Apple says it's not working on a car.

CNET

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Despite endless mockups and fanboy fantasies, Apple says it's not working on a car. Instead, it's working on something with the least-catchy name possible -- "autonomous systems."

See also: WWDC 2017: I miss Steve Jobs and his 'Reality Distortion Field'

This we learned from a Bloomberg interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

"We're focusing on autonomous systems," Cook told Bloomberg's Emily Chang. "It's a core technology that we view as very important. We sort of see it as the mother of all AI projects."

With that you can throw away all your crazy Apple Car concept art. And there's been an awful lot of terrible Apple Car concept art floating around over the past few years.

This is the clearest statement yet that Apple's car project -- rumored to have been called Project Titan, but which the fans dubbed iCar -- is either dead and buried, or didn't really get off the ground in the first place. It seems that even with Apple's billions, a car project was going to be too expensive, too much of a gamble, or Apple had looked sideways at the competition -- specifically Tesla -- and come to the conclusion that it wasn't a market worth entering.

After all, while revenues at Tesla have been increasing steadily, losses have also been widening. So the car market is great, as long as you're willing to endure losses, with no hint of that turning around any time soon.

But despite the buzzword salad from Cook, it's still unclear what, if anything, Apple has in the way of a tangible product, and what are the timescales for bringing that product to market. That says more than anything he actually said about how far into the distance a real product is at this stage.

After all, all Apple has at present in the automotive arena is CarPlay, which is essentially little more than a head unit for the iPhone. However big that gets, it's hardly going to be Apple's "next big thing."

The only other hint from the interview we get as to what Apple executives are thinking is the following:

"You've got kind of three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame."

The three vectors of change that Cook is referring to here are electric vehicles (think Tesla), autonomous vehicles (think Google's Waymo, which has now transformed primarily into a partnership with Fiat Chrysler, killing that daft-looking Firefly car), and ride-hailing (think Uber or Lyft). But beyond that, even that statement says nothing. Yes, there are "three vectors of change happening generally in the same time frame," but does that equal big opportunities for Apple, or that things are up in the air too much, or suggest that the timing isn't right?

Or maybe Cook dropped it in because it made it seem that Apple had its finger on the Silicon Valley pulse. Or maybe he thought it would sound good to investors (after all, this was a Bloomberg interview).

What is clear is that the massive car-shaped cash cow that investors (not to mention pundits and fanboys) were expecting to follow the iPhone, and buoy up the company for the next decade or so, isn't coming.

And with the iPhone hitting its tenth anniversary this year, the suggestion that the company doesn't have a new hit product ready to pick up the slack could very well send chills down the spines of investors, even if an Apple Car wasn't the best direction for the company to be going in.

But to be honest, an Apple Car never made much sense. It felt more like a crazy idea that Apple fans who like to draw concepts and product mockups wanted to believe in. Yes, Apple is a design firm, and a very good one at that, and I have no doubt it could make a car if it wanted to. But there's a huge gulf between consumer electronics and the automotive industries, and it's likely that Apple understands that.

Not only that, but it was also a massive distraction from the products and services that Apple currently makes and sells. Apple, more than any other company, is constantly competing against a fantasy version of itself that fans and pundits dream up, and the products that it releases are often judged against these mythical creations, as opposed to other, real products that are on the market.

A partnership to supply digital dashboards or autonomous systems make a lot more sense. Yes, it's a lot more mundane, but it allows Apple to focus on the bits it's good at (AI, electronics, interface and such), and leave the rest of the car stuff to a car company. But here's the real question -- does a car, or for that matter, this "autonomous systems" concept that Cook is talking about, make more sense than something unexciting (but far more mainstream) like an Apple TV or refrigerator?

I'm not sure it does. If anything, Cook's interview hints that Apple might very well be struggling to figure out where it's headed in the next decade, and that it might be forced to squeeze more and more out of the iPhone.

Wherever Apple goes now, one thing is for sure, and that is that Cook has killed the Apple Car expectation stone dead.

I wonder what fantasy Apple product the pundits and fans will turn to next.

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