Apple’s biggest challenge putting a vehicle on the road may not be the design, probably isn’t the artificial intelligence, and might not be the software and manufacturing – but almost certainly is the most mundane challenge of all: the lack of charging points.
Apple Cars need chargepoints, too
In the US, Apple’s home turf and still its most important market, the US Department of Energy tells us there are just 111,000 public charging stations for electronic vehicles (EV), which is what the Apple Car is expected to be.
That’s going to increase; the US Infrastructure Bill aims to fund a national network of 500,000 chargers. While this is a large number, it’s not enough, and deployment will take time. Given these power-up places need to be evenly distributed across the country to prevent people in EVs from running out of juice as they travel, the lack of infrastructure will be a stumbling block to anyone in the EV space — including the current No. 2 US EV manufacturer, Ford.
Hybrid vehicles will not be around forever, as the transition from fossil fuels seems inevitable over time.
But the problem is that cars move — and while domestic EV charging points may form part of the solution, they are of no use at all when you’ve jumped into your Apple Car and asked Siri to drive you through Dakota.
Given most economies have now put EV deployment on the fast track toward 2030, the rate of infrastructure deployment needs to accelerate. It must. The World Economic Forum estimates we’ll need an enormous 290 million charging points to support all the EVs it expects to be in use worldwide by 2040.
China, which has been investing in such deployments for 20 years, has just 2.2 million charging points to support the 4.5 million EVs currently in use there.
All are not equal
Standardization is another problem. Even for those who have — or can have — access to them (and many don’t) domestically installed EV plugs require investment, electric grids need upgrades, and vehicle manufacturers really should agree a set of standards for coupling devices.
At present, the systems vary between manufacturers and nations. This threatens a scenario in which a driver visits an EV charging spot that’s listed on their Map, only to find it doesn’t support their vehicle.
No wonder Alix Partners found 46% of drivers won’t purchase an EC until charging points are as common as gas pumps.
(With that in mind, do note that many of the big gas companies are now moving to install EV charging facilities in some of their forecourts, but this still leaves the challenges of fixing power grids to support and provide for this new demand.)
Apple may be closer than you think
We know the company continues to explore the space. We know it has encountered significant challenges on that route, as creating autonomous vehicles turned out to be far greater than just being a technology problem. It’s a problem that raised ethical, environmental, and engineering dimensions.
It turned out that mobile networks aren’t a great deal of use as part of the collision detection system for a vehicle that’s underground or in a tunnel. It has required major investments in machine vision intelligence, contextual warning systems, and even greater investment developing processors capable of taking decisions based on hundreds of different data points in real-time, safely, and without killing anyone.
As we all know (and Tesla’s troubles show), many of these matters remain a work in progress. The ethical dimension, meanwhile, means that even when you have created a vehicle intelligence that’s roadworthy, it must also be capable of answering moral probabilities, such as deciding who to kill in a collision in which the vehicle still has agency — the car occupant or the innocent party who happens to be crossing the road. And don’t even get me started on what happens when you put a security back door inside a moving vehicle.
Some of these problems are even more complex than deciding which Apple Watch band materials/designs may look good when used to upholster the seat or electing which set of APIs should be supported as the company inevitably builds out its Apple Car App Store.
I’ve a feeling Apple is far further along on many of these matters than any believe. A spate of recent reports claim it is already in discussion with potential manufacturing partners.
But even once R&D and manufacturing challenges are resolved, that still leaves the company to build a relevant go- to-market strategy (likely to be a combination of private ownership and ride sharing/short term rental) and — perhaps the biggest sticking point to the widest possible deployment — the need for a compatible network of EV charging points to keep those Apple Cars moving on tomorrow’s roads.
As I see it and despite the current hype, at this point in EV evolution and the Apple Car, a company like Chargepoint looks to be a better strategic Apple acquisition than Peloton. Apple is going to need to keep that Apple Car show moving on the road, somehow.