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The iCar future

What Apple's car project means for India and the world

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

is a small and incestuous world. Soon enough, everyone knows what everyone else is up to. Even a company as famously secretive as can't keep really big ideas under wraps forever. And the Cupertino, California-based tech giant was reminded of this fact recently, when news organisations revealed that the company is likely planning to release an electric car as early as 2020. This is being seen as a sign of the vast company's dedication to the project, since new cars usually take seven years to plan and execute; is trying to shave a couple of years off this estimate. The question that many ask, of course is this: what on earth is Apple, a computer company, making cars for? But this is the wrong question. After all, a decade ago the question could have been asked: what on earth is Apple, a computer company, trying to make phones for? It is not easy to see what the future convergence point of technology is. But many agree that personal transport is ripe for innovation. New networking technology, cloud-based traffic management, and sharper engine process management are all things that a computer company could bring to car design.

Brands and companies need to constantly renew themselves in order to survive. Apple's success has not so far been born out of individual products so much as by developing an aesthetic and a certain approach to user interfaces that many of its customers come to trust - or be addicted to. So far, it has been able to move this across various hardware platforms because of the authoritarian rule of its charismatic co-founder and chief executive for many years, The aesthetic was Jobs' obsession. How the company can keep this going without Jobs in what is its biggest risk yet is a question that many will be asking.

The secrecy surrounding Apple's gambit began to unravel when people noticed that it was hiring specialists in such things as battery management, car safety, hybrid management and so on. For non-combustion cars - as for solar - energy storage continues to be the big bottleneck, and the first company to figure out a decent solution is likely to coin money. It is also possible that political pressure to break the patent, or transfer the technology to developing countries to aid in climate change mitigation efforts, will be very strong. But even though hybrid electricity-fossil fuel cars are now mainstream in several countries, including the United States, pure electric cars remain rare beasts, years after they were expected to have become a common sight on roads across the world. That global oil prices have dipped spectacularly has not aided the shift to electric propulsion.

Yet Apple's bet suggests that the shift is inevitable. This raises the question: what is India doing about it? Several Indian projects have struggled - the car, for example, taken over by Mahindra & Mahindra, is a world-class product, but the price and convenience differential between it and petrol cars is still too large for regular consumers. In Delhi, the base-model costs almost Rs 5 lakh; the Maruti Alto 800 costs almost two-thirds of that. There are persistent reports that the government will provide some subsidy to cover that difference. But at best electric cars in the class will be substantially more expensive than their competitors. So, the question arises: what on earth could incentivise consumers to pay the extra money? The history of consumer products suggests that only an aura of coolness and exclusivity could. Apple has profited off giving that aura to products that are, in fact, not just the most cutting-edge in the market, but are priced well above all others. If they can perform that magic on electric cars as well, then the world would owe them a great deal.

First Published: Sat, February 21 2015. 21:35 IST