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Would you buy an Apple iCar?

Tech company is trying to become a larger automotive supplier. But we really hope it doesn't try to design its own car.

By Douglas Newcomb May 6, 2013 8:15AM

Apple iCar. Image courtesy of Digital Trends.Before he died, Apple founder Steve Jobs had wanted to extend his influence and product wizardry to designing a car. That's according to a former Apple board member, although we’ll never know if an "iCar" would have ever seen the light of day had Jobs lived longer.


But in the past few weeks, there’s been a flurry of news over Apple’s automotive ambitions, despite the company's obvious snags in its new role as an industry supplier. One tech industry insider also suggested last week that Apple buy an existing cutting-edge automaker.


Through the dominance of its portable devices, Apple has, by default, ruled in-car connectivity for almost a decade. Now it seems the company is poised to make an even bigger play in the auto industry.


But while these thoughts probably thrill many Apple aficionados, as a tech journalist, I wouldn’t buy an iCar.


We reported last week that Apple recently filed two car-related patents. One is for a technology that works with Internet-connected parking garages to allow drivers to keep tabs on their cars and be guided back to them. Another allows an iPhone to take the place of a car’s ignition and locking systems, with the option of tailoring settings such as seat position and tuning to favorite radio stations for individual drivers.


It was also reported last week by 9to5 Mac that Apple “plans to move aggressively into the in-car integration space later this year.” According to the website, Apple is working closely with automakers to integrate Apple Maps and Siri voice recognition into cars.


But Siri isn’t news anymore. Apple announced at its World Wide Developer Conference in June 2012 that it was partnering with nine automakers to integrate a feature called Siri EyesFree that would use the “voice assistant” on a connected iPhone.


So far, only Chevrolet has introduced the feature, for the Spark and the Sonic as part of the MyLink system, and it’s also now available on Mercedes-Benz vehicles with the addition of an optional dealer-installed package called Drive Kit Plus. Honda also has said it will integrate the feature later this year, but none of the other automakers Apple named has immediate plans to implement it, according to Wired.com.


In a Bloomberg editorial last week, entrepreneur and early Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya suggested that Apple go way beyond being an automotive supplier and buy Tesla. Palihapitiya said he “would buy an iCar.” But I wouldn’t, even though I own plenty of Apple products.


Like Apple, the auto industry certainly has its own share of proprietary systems, particularly with infotainment. But there's at least a certain level of cooperation, even among competitors. Examples range from the onboard diagnostic port to the HomeLink standard that allows owners to operate their garage door openers from almost any car.


Apple has always gone its own way by developing its own proprietary interfaces such as FireWire -- and relenting to the more popular USB standard only once it became clear that the company couldn’t turn the tide. A more recent example was the introduction of the Lightning connector for the iPhone 5, which caused people who owned the phone to buy a $30 adapter if they wanted to charge the device and access its contents while plugged into a car’s USB port.


Of course, some would argue that an Apple-like design approach is just what automakers need for more seamless infotainment interfaces and portable device integration. And this explains why BMW’s ConnectedDrive applications integration system has been compatible with Apple devices for only two years now.


But with car technology moving toward a more open-source approach, cooperation and standards among car companies as well as technology suppliers will help solve some of the current compatibility issues. But Apple, as always, will likely continue to exist within its own walled garden.


For these reasons -- and as someone who recently switched from a Mac back to a PC -- I wouldn't buy an iCar.


Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

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