The iPhone has never stood out for its voice calling capabilities. A feature phone from 2005 is able to make just as clear of a voice call as an iPhone 6s. Instead, the iPhone went on to do something much more profound than just improve the voice call. The iPhone showed the world that there was another way to think about the phone. Fast-forward nine years, and there are questions about whether the auto industry will experience its own "iPhone" moment. Will a new product or service come along that changes our perception of a car? Is autonomous driving the technology that will ultimately change how we think about cars? Will Uber and other ridesharing companies be able to rethink personal mobility? Does Apple think it has an answer for rethinking the car? Did Elon Musk already change the car's definition with Tesla? The journey to find all of these answers begins by looking at how Apple rethought the phone with iPhone.
Rethinking the Phone
The iPhone was born from a different kind of inspiration. Instead of looking at Blackberries and Motorola RAZR, the most popular phones at the time, Apple used the iPod as an example for what it wanted to achieve with its own phone.
While Blackberry, formerly called Research in Motion, was seeing remarkable success in enterprise by selling a smartphone with a keyboard that gave each letter its own dedicated hardware key, Apple looked at such a feature as a drawback. A smartphone's dedicated hardware keyboard ended up holding back the smartphone's potential. By taking multi-touch technology originally targeted at a large screen and seeing if it could work on a smaller screen, Apple ended up changing the smartphone's trajectory by not just removing the hardware keyboard but replacing it with an alternative that helped to rethink our perception of a phone.
Of course, the iPhone didn't just add chaos to the smartphone industry because of its hardware design. Apple's existing capabilities when it came to software turned what was a phone in our pocket into a computer. In addition, working exclusively with AT&T gave Apple the flexibility to think outside the box. Even though the strategy was not looked at as a strength in 2007, Apple's control over phone hardware and software made it possible to rethink the phone.
Cars Are Like Phones
Given the iPhone's level of success, it is has become too easy to look at everything through an iPhone lens. Taking what worked with the iPhone and then applying it to other products and industries is a recipe for disaster. However, there are a few reasons that the automobile industry is much more similar to the smartphone industry than what first meets the eye.
Using a smartphone and sitting in a car both revolve around a relationship between the user and product. For a smartphone, this relationship is straightforward: interacting with hardware in order to utilize software. The feel, look, and sound of a smartphone matter to the user. The car contains many of these same attributes. By simply sitting in an automobile, we are taken into a different environment in which a number of our senses are driven into overload including smell, touch, sight and sound. Both a smartphone and car are capable of containing and fostering unique experiences. Accordingly, it is possible to improve or alter the product in an attempt to create a better experience.
Tesla's success can be attributed to the relationship consumers have with their Model S and the broader experience of buying and driving an electric car direct from Tesla. Uber's success is a result of the experience created by easily getting from Point A to Point B in a safe and comfortable vehicle.
Similar to how hardware and software come together to contribute to a smartphone's experience, a similar dynamic is beginning to take over the auto industry. While it is difficult to call today's car dashboard experience pleasant, products such as CarPlay help to alleviate some of the friction points while autonomous features like Tesla's AutoPilot only exemplify the significant role software and hardware have to play in the car's future.
Rethinking the Car
Since cars and smartphones share a few important characteristics, the best way to discover the car's "iPhone" moment, or a new product or service that changes the long-standing perception of a car, is to look at our relationship with the automobile. What aspect of today's modern car has the potential to fundamentally change how we perceive and think about cars?
Internal Combustion Engine? Replacing an internal combustion engine with an electric powertrain seems like a good way to improve various aspects of an automobile. Not only are we able to help the environment, but using battery power for propulsion leads to fewer moving parts to maintain on a regular basis. However, an electric powertrain by itself doesn't rethink the car. As the Model S and X have shown, while an electric car is capable of providing a much more enjoyable driving experience than many gas-powered cars, at the end of the day, it is still a car, albeit one of the better cars on the road. The primary reason electric powertrains are being positioned for a comeback is that the price of batteries continue to fall, making electric cars much more economical.
Human Driver? Having software control a car will certainly change how we use cars. However, people have been sitting in the back seat of cars and having someone else drive them around for a very long time. Uber and the broader taxi industry serve as prime examples for why autonomous driving doesn't fundamentally alter a car's definition. Similar to electric powertrains, autonomous driving features may lead to a better car experience, but more is needed to actually rethink the car.
Dashboard? Many have positioned a car's dashboard as the modern day version of a Blackberry keyboard - a collection of overly complicated buttons and switches that take away from the experience of driving or simply sitting in a car. Following this thought through, some have argued that allowing our smartphone to integrate with our car's dashboard will provide the familiarity that consumers demand. Unfortunately, improving a car's dashboard does not change our perception of a car.
At a fundamental level, the dashboard is an interface used to control a car. Simplify a car's propulsion system by replacing an internal combustion engine with an electric powertrain, and the need for a complicated dashboard is instantly reduced. Go further and add software that handles everything from autonomous driving features to cabin temperature, and the result is the Tesla Model 3. Replacing a complicated assortment of dashboard buttons with one large tablet screen marks a milestone for the car. However, a self-driving, electric car with a tablet as a dashboard does not fundamentally transform how we think about a car. It is still a box, albeit a much smarter box on wheels that gets us from Point A to Point B.
The Car's Friction Point
If electric powertrains, autonomous driving, and software dashboards don't change how we perceive a car, it would appear that the auto industry may lack an iPhone moment in the traditional sense of the term. That is unless the answer has been literally sitting beneath our noses for decades.
While it may seem like of one the most boring parts found in a car, the seat represents the biggest barrier to rethinking the car. If a company can rethink the car seat, our perception of a car will change, and ultimately, the entire auto industry will be impacted. The car seat is the car's version of the smartphone hardware keyboard.
Seats play the largest role in our in-car experience. Everything from how we feel to where we are looking and what we are doing is determined by a car seat. Given these important roles, it is shocking that the car seat has seen very little change over the years, as depicted in the following pictures.
If cars are nothing more than boxes on wheels, the primary way to rethink the car is to change how we think about the "box." Similar to how the iPhone was inspired by the iPod and not the leading smartphones at the time, the best inspiration for rethinking a car's passenger compartment comes from the mobile products in our pockets and on our wrists, not the best-selling cars on the road.
Smartphones, tablets, and wearables are all about personalization. We want our iPhones and Apple Watches to be specifically suited to our personalities. Both hardware and software help accomplish that goal. With cars, the same type of personalization is nowhere to be found. The average car buyer has a finite number of options available to create an experience specifically suited to them. Once a car is delivered, future modifications and changes are pretty much nonexistent. What if there was a way we could rethink what it means to personalize our car experience?
It all begins with the seats. By no longer thinking of seats as stationary benches facing forward, we can begin to come up with a way of creating different experiences inside a car based on our mood or merely the time of day. Of course, we have seen examples of this in the real world when it comes to the family car, such as the 2008 Dodge Caravan (pictured below).
However, there is a reason why consumers never embraced this type of setup in numbers: It was clumsy and aggravating to set up, and it was far from personalized. What if there was a way to create a certain kind of car compartment layout for one situation but then be able to switch layouts with an iPhone or even Apple Watch? Or how about creating a seating arrangement on our iPhone for one car, saving it, and then loading that same arrangement in a different car? The way we perceive a car will change. Instead of being just a box on wheels, the car will become a room on wheels.
By relying on software to create our own unique experience and then taking that experience from car to car, we would have essentially recreated an iPhone-like experience on wheels.
There are very few automobile companies in a position to combine hardware and software to rethink the car seat. Ironically, the cars that have historically been the closest to delivering this kind of vision have been either large boxes on wheels like Dodge Caravans or an ultra-luxury car like a Rolls-Royce. Even then, the offerings still pale in comparison to what can truly be accomplished with software.
Despite very high customer satisfaction rates, Tesla doesn't seem close to moving in this direction as it continues to position performance as the primary reason to buy a Tesla Model 3. In fact, the inside of a Tesla is often regarded as the vehicle's weak point. Meanwhile, the Model X internal compartment design is very conservative. This leaves Apple and Project Titan.
It is no secret that Apple's strength is not just hardware and software integration but the design behind the experience created from combining the two. Along those lines, while very little has been said about Apple's rumored electric car project, there are a number of clues to suggest where Apple is likely looking. Marc Newson, the newest member of Apple's industrial design team, has tried his hand at seemingly everything at least once, but one of his most well-known designs was a concept car for Ford commissioned back in 1999 (seen below with orange seats). While the car has ended up being quite a polarizing object over the years, the takeaway from his design was the importance of rethinking conventional wisdom all the way down to how we would enter or exit the car.
In addition, a company reportedly attached to Project Titan shipped a 1957 Fiat Multipla 600 (the yellow car below) to the U.S. in 2014. Don't focus on that exact car. Instead, consider how the internal compartment would certainly mesh well with the concept of rethinking car seats and turning a box on wheels into a room on wheels.
In fact, Marc Newson has a pretty extensive history of turning boxes into rooms. He designed the internal compartment of a private jet interior as well as a Qantas A330.
Add it all up, and it would look like Project Titan has the resources to spend much more time rethinking a car's interior than an electric powertrain or driving performance.
The Car Seat Opens Doors
If a company can rethink the car seat and the kind of experience possible inside a car, our definition of a car wouldn't just change, but we would be able to fully utilize car features like electric powertrains and autonomous driving.
If a car becomes fully autonomous, what happens to the driver seat? Does it make sense for everyone to face forward when the car is moving? These types of questions don't have clear answers if the car seat isn't rethought. Instead, we are merely occupants in a box that drives itself. Bring in the topic of ridesharing and being able to "load" our individual car compartment settings for a car just about to pull up to our pickup zone, and the possibilities created by rethinking the car seat begin to materialize. While it may seem like safety regulations and state laws may curtail the possibilities in this area, rethinking the seat may actually end up improving safety inside moving cars. The main reason why car companies have not embraced new ideas for the seat is limited customer acceptance. However, instead of it being a roadblock, it should serve as an opportunity for new companies to approach the problem from a different angle.
The car's "iPhone moment" will likely end up being an idea - thinking of cars as extensions of our homes - personalized rooms on wheels. While most think the way to build such a product is to simply add software to a car dashboard, the answer is actually found by rethinking the most important part of a car - the seat.
Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily emails (2-3 stories a day, 10-12 stories a week). To sign up, visit the membership page.