Apple’s car play

Look out, the iCar is coming

BARRY PARK

IF YOU believe Australian-born Apple designer Marc Newson, car design is caught in a bit of a rut.

Asked about his design pet peeve in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Newson singled out the automotive industry. “There were moments when cars somehow encapsulated everything that was good about progress,” he said. “But right now we’re at the bottom of a trough.”

Tough words coming from a man who in 2001 penned the Ford 021C small sedan concept – a styling exercise that featured a kitchen drawer-style boot, a glowing dashboard and pedestal-mounted swivelling seats.

But they’re significant words given Apple’s influence, and the company now wants to swing that focus to the area that, in Newson’s own words, has dropped its game – the car.

Newson’s move to the company late last year – to work on its watch – and his distant history with Ford has helped fuel speculation that the computing and software giant is now serious about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ long-held desire to build its own version of what is fast becoming one of the most powerful computer-run devices we will own.

Outward signs are that the company is stealthily rushing headlong into the project, codenamed Titan, and has hundreds of engineers and designers dedicated to it. Research vehicles linked to the California-based company and fitted with laser-guided eyes used to build 3D maps are prowling US streets.

The weight of evidence continues to stack up for the project. Apple is known to have poached workers from electric-car battery companies, offered incentives to staff of cross-town EV start-up Tesla, and trawled the design studios of carmakers including Audi, BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz.

There have also been backroom talks between senior Apple executives and BMW, where high on the agenda was a detailed look at the production of the innovative battery-powered i3 hatchback’s lightweight plasticreinforced carbonfibre shell.

The most damning snippets of evidence, though, are the recent revelations in The Guardian, which peeked behind the US government’s veil of secrecy to discover that Apple had made inquiries about booking time at a top secret former navy base that’s being converted into a high-tech proving ground for carmakers.

Wheels’ own investigations revealed that Apple recently tweaked the Australian trademark for its nowiconic company name to include automobiles for the first time.

Carmakers aren’t yet worried by the thought that Apple could shake the automotive tree in the same way that it has uprooted the consumer electronics industry.

“If there were a rumour that Mercedes or Daimler planned to start building smartphones, then they (Apple) would not be sleepless at night,” Mercedes-Benz chief Dieter Zetsche told Wheels journalist Bruce Newton. “And the same applies to me.”

It appears to be a matter of when, not if, Apple will one day have a self-branded car ready for the world.

BAD SEEDS

A NUMBER of Apple projects have turned into mountains of cash – think iPod, iPhone, iPad and the early Macintosh computer – but there have also been a few road bumps along the way:

PowerBook Duo

MINIATURISING technology doesn’t work when all you do i s physically shrink th ings down to match. Apple’s 1992 bid to create an ultra-portable notebook spawned a cramped keyboard, tiny screen and no easy way to connect it to that shiny new thing called the internet.

Newton MessagePad

THIS precursor to the iPad was meant to revolutionise the business world.

The Newton was introduced in 1993 as a personal digital assistant that could recognise handw riting, although poorly.

Big, slow and with woefully crap batter y life, it was shelved in 1998.

Pippin

PiPP!N, as it was marketed in 1995, and its boomerang-shaped AppleJack handset were meant to conquer the infant games console market. Rubbish graphics and the memory capacity of a goldfish meant the game was over even before it started.

Apple mouse

FORM can sometimes override function, and a clear example of this was the Apple mouse launched in 1998. Looking artistically similar to an Apple mouse user’s spilled teardrop, the smooth, curved surface proved an ergonomic nightmare. It lasted two years.