This is fiction. It is what I imagine Apple is exploring.
You create and sell the iPhone, the world’s most successful product. You want to reinvent the automobile. One that will change how people use and think about cars. One that will also change how cars are built.
You have a clean slate. You can deeply integrate the car with iPhone, your wearables, your cloud services, in a way nobody else can. You can even count on the users having an iPhone on them. You question everything that you think needs to be in a car. You remember that there are a thousand No’s for every Yes. You can make bold moves.
You will be doubted. Many will not understand. Doesn’t matter. You are not Tesla, your goal is not to usher in the electric vehicle. That ship has sailed. You are Apple, you will change the game.
You will have three teams, each exploring a different avenue for controlling the car. The first team is tasked with designing a fully autonomous car. This team has the cleanest slate. The second team is tasked with designing a car to be actively controlled by a driver, though the team has the freedom to completely reinvent the way the car is controlled. The third team must design a car that is controlled by a driver that sits facing forward, with a steering wheel and pedals. Everything else in the car’s design, though, is up for grabs.
This post explores the “change how cars are built” part, not the “how people use and think about cars” part, and focuses on the things the third team will be looking at.
Team 3 isn’t designing a driverless car, but obtains and benefits from all the technology and software that the other teams must develop to achieve their goals. All three teams approach the design from Apple’s modus operandi. Fewer mechanical parts means more Foxconn, less weight and more range, more automation, more compactness, better sales margins. Most of all, a greater ability to scale the production of the vehicle to previously unthinkable levels. The Nokias and Blackberrys will be unable to compete.
Here are some of the non-software things your (all-star) team is perfecting:
Wheel module. Same one for all four wheels. We’ll come back to this later. It is just a lovely consequence.
Brake lines. Gone. No tubes with fluids routed everywhere to communicate and actuate the brakes. No hydraulics to install and maintain. No brake pad dust everywhere. No disc brakes to wear out. Instead, develop or license powerful electromagnetic brakes, that can handle emergency braking, drawing upon the all-electric vehicle’s large power reserves.
Keys. Gone. One more contraption we used to carry, now replaced by smartphones and/or watches. No Touch ID on the doors. No Siri outside the car. No emergency key. You will be able to get in and get going when you need to, even if your iPhone is lost.
Door handles. Gone. You signal that you want to open the door by force-touching the window (while the owner/users of the car are standing near it), and the door unlatches (and is smoothly pushed open a bit) so you can pull it open the rest of the way.
Dashboard. Gone. A single touchscreen running carOS will handle everything. Tesla Model 3 has stolen some of your steam here.
Steering column. Gone. Not even drive-by-wire. All electronic, high-framerate. Your team can rely on the electronics to work at all times and in all conditions, thanks to Team 1’s requirements.
Steering wheel. All significant new Apple product designs start with a new or completely rethought input method. The Mac’s mouse. The iPod’s click wheel. The PowerBook’s touchpad. The iPhone’s Touchscreen. The Apple Watch Digital Crown. For Team 3, the Steering wheel has to remain, but how it is used can be reinvented. It will be touch and rotation sensitive. It will have haptic feedback. You’ll feel the road through it, thanks to the car’s software and sensors, better than any mechanical steering wheel ever could. It won’t have its own display. There will be no horn button.
Turn signal levers. Gone. The software will do it for you. It knows everything it needs to, and you’ll also be able to inform it in advance or your intentions, casually, without taking your hand(s) off the redesigned steering wheel.
Mechanical brake pedal. Gone. Completely electronic. Same for the emergency brake. The car’s autopilot systems will handle them most of the time anyway.
Sound system. Gone. No SD card slots, no knobs, buttons, optical drive, nothing. Just speakers. No AUX IN. No satellite radio.
Mirrors. Gone. The car’s software and sensors will inform you of all conditions you need to know about, in a way far more reliable than mirrors that require you to turn your head and take your eyes off the road.
Buttons to adjust the seats. Nope. Also, the car knows your preferences because it knows who you are thanks to your iPhone or Apple Watch.
Buttons to open and close windows. Nope. There’s a tablet in the back, too.
Interior latch to manually open the doors. Nope. No way. A simple physical button attached to redundant electronics to unlatch the door.
Switches to turn on lights. Nope.
4-wheel steering. Yep. With electronics, four-wheel steering is back, and with nothing mechanical in between any of the wheels, there’s more space to make the car more compact and/or have more space within the car’s confines. The wheels also don’t have to turn as much, so the wheel wells can be thinner, too.
Motor on each and every wheel. Yep. Smaller motors, developed or licensed by Apple. All-wheel drive, all the time¹.
Shock absorbers and springs. Gone. Replaced with electronic actuators, for a ride that’s absolutely flat over the bumpiest of roads and around sharp corners.
Back to that wheel module.
With each wheel having identical parts: A motor, electromagnetic brakes, ability to steer, and actuators for a suspension, it can be placed nicely and easily in any position. Front, back, left, right. It can be replaced. It can be upgraded (how un-Apple-like though). It takes care of everything, so the rest of the car is free to have the most space available.
Bolts to change the tires. Nope. If there is even a spare tire, it will be designed to be changeable in a more convenient way. But then again, if the wheel module is compact enough, there could even be an entire spare wheel module instead of a spare tire. Changeable at pit-stop speeds.
Food for thought.
¹ A less expensive version of the car could have only two wheel modules with motors in them.