On February 3rd, we posted two patent reports about cars. The first was a granted patent about advanced auto controls and systems that we originally covered in 2013. That patent was about some serious technology that seemed over ambitious for just CarPlay. Why would a car company want CarPlay to use advanced vehicle access credentials, personalize your car settings and so forth? The second patent on that day was a one-in-a-million oddball about Apple Electric Car, Inc. We reported on that anomaly not thinking there was much there to really work with. What was odd was the wild reaction over the simple report. Many tapped into our story including CNN Money and others. Why was this story getting so much press? It's as if it disturbed something, tapped into something, but what? This week an explosion of stories broke out about an Apple rented van equipped with A LIDAR system (a technology used by the driverless car by Google) in the Bay Area. Business Insider reported on Monday that an Apple employee stated that they were working on something that would give Tesla a run for its money. The Buzz kept up all week.
Then the Financial Times stepped into the ring ahead of the pack on a new developing story with the byline "Apple hiring automotive experts to work in secret research lab." According to the Financial Times, "Apple is recruiting experts in automotive technology and vehicle design to work at a new top-secret research lab, according to several people familiar with the company, pointing to ambitions that go beyond the dashboard.
Dozens of Apple employees, led by experienced managers from its iPhone unit, are researching automotive products at a confidential Silicon Valley location outside the company's Cupertino campus, the people said.
Sir Jonathan Ive's team of Apple designers has held regular meetings with automotive executives and creators in recent months, in some cases trying to hire them. Recent recruits to Apple's team include the head of Mercedes-Benz's Silicon Valley R&D unit."
The Apple research lab was set up late last year, not long after Apple unveiled its forthcoming smart watch and latest iPhones, which suggests that any resulting product may still be years away from release. Apple often investigates a wide range of new product areas, some of which never get released.
The report noted that "people familiar with the company said that the background of the people Apple is hiring — including automotive designers and vehicle dynamics engineers — and the seniority of the executives involved suggest a car could be in the works. Three months ago I would have said it was CarPlay," said one person who has worked closely with Apple for many years, referring to Apple's infotainment system. "Today I think it's a car."
That's an interesting point because the same could be said of Apple's many patents about vehicle systems. Some can be clearly viewed as being CarPlay oriented like this one about future CarPlay user interface features or this one about maps in night mode while driving.
But then there were deeper patents about vehicle systems that seemed too advanced to ever really be a part of CarPlay like advanced controls over vehicle driver preferences to control the car seat, steering wheel, mirrors and climate control.
Another patent was about creating a system whereby a vehicle couldn't start without the iDevice Access Credentials. That's something way too sophisticated as a CarPlay feature. So over time you think that some car companies have simply decided to work with Apple in designing next generation interfaces, and you leave it at that. Without a new context to apply to these patents, it's the only logical conclusion that you can rationally support. And it still may be that case today, in spite of this spike in sophisticated rumors. But then again, these "rumors" have crossed a line to being probable. And if Apple didn't come out and outright kill the rumors, it makes you wonder.
Tonight the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is mysteriously quoting the same line in their report as the Financial Times did earlier about a "secret lab." Are the two news firms using the same "secret source?" Then the report mentioned that the vehicle looked like a minivan which turned me off being that the sightings of such a vehicle were plastered everywhere the day before. Was someone just throwing darts at a board to make a story? Much of the story seemed like filler material.
However, the report has a great core story. The Wall Street Journal's reporters state in their story that "Mr. Cook approved the car project almost a year ago and assigned veteran product design Vice President Steve Zadesky to lead the group, the people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Zadesky is a former Ford engineer who helped lead the Apple teams that created the iPod and iPhone.
Mr. Zadesky was given permission to create a 1,000-person team and poach employees from different parts of the company, one of the people familiar with the matter said. Working from a private location a few miles from Apple's corporate headquarters in Cupertino, the team is researching different types of robotics, metals and materials consistent with automobile manufacturing, the people said.
In September, Apple hired Johann Jungwirth, who had been the president and chief executive of Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, which has operations in Sunnyvale, Calif., near Apple's campus, according to his LinkedIn profile."
This is simply too much information to be considered a rumor. It's a story that appears to being guided by Apple in some way. That's what makes this story so intriguing. You could read more of the WSJ report here. Oh, by the way, I was reminded that Stephen Zadesky was also the person who signed the Master Transaction Agreement between Liquidmetal Technologies and Apple back in 2010. Yes, more intrigue.
Another oddball story that should be noted now is one that we did on Foxconn back in late July, titled "Foxconn may be seeking to enter the iPhone Battery Business." The report noted that Foxconn had a secret important project. We noted at the time that "Foxconn's new subsidiary Taiwan Lico Technology Co., Ltd has signed a contract with Anqing city, Anhui province, which is going to build high-molecular polymer battery cell and battery pack production" facility in stages. The move confirms Foxconn's desire to push further into both the production of batteries for mobile smart devices and for future electric cars."
Okay, there are two stories here. One is Foxconn wanting to get into the iPhone battery business. The other is about electric car batteries. Which is really the "secret" project? Considering that Foxconn's CEO Terry Gou coughed up the iPhone battery business right off the bat, it's obvious that the electric car battery project is the one that's secret.
The latter part of the story was a real head-scratcher, but I simply wrote it off as Foxconn's CEO Terry Gou being quite the entrepreneur in entering many new businesses where he could make a dollar. Now the secret iCar project could shed a fresh new light on Foxconn's secret battery project.
In the end, the iCar would be a great Apple project. It's one that could bring the heydays back to the U.S. when they made the greatest cars in the world. The future of vehicles will be about advanced electronics, the gizmos, the science fiction elements.
It's a grand project that would put Apple aiming for more than just singular iDevices and give Apple's CEO Tim Cook a means of carving out his own vision for Apple that would dwarf anything from the past.
In 2010 Patently Apple reported on a patent about Apple's invention about a Smart Bike. Over a hundred websites around the globe covered our patent report. The buzz lasted for weeks if not months. Evidently the world wants to dream along with Apple. They hunger for something much larger, much bolder than just the iDevices of today. We want to see Apple deliver a next generation HDTV and blow us away. But the iCar is at a whole different level. The iCar is popcorn for our minds. It's an entertaining dream with eye-popping ideas exploding in every direction.
Is the iCar just a dream or is Apple about to enter a new corporate era and take us to places that we couldn't have even imagined going before. Unfortunately that's not going to be answered any time soon. Yet just the mere idea of it is re-energizing in many ways. As always, only time will tell how this will play out - but you have to admit, it was certainly quite the buzz to end our hectic week with while doubling as a torpedo directly aimed at Google's self-driving car project and beyond.
NOTE: On the Flip Side, there's a Skeptical Voice in the Wilderness: Hitting The Brakes On Apple's Electric Car