Few products have had as big an impact on society over the past century as the car. Now, just when the automobile seems to finally be approaching its decline, America’s most fêted corporate visionaries seem determined once again to reinvent it, or at least how it’s used.
Evidence is mounting that Apple wants to develop an electric car. That would pit it against Tesla’s Elon Musk, who is trying to take zero-emissions electric vehicles mainstream. And then there’s Uber, cashed up and on a mission to ”basically make car ownership a thing of the past” by making it easier to get one, with a driver, just when you need it.
That these efforts come from America, land of the car, seems fitting. You could see them as Silicon Valley’s attempts to redeem the car—to show a new, environment-conscious generation that you can, as it were, have your car and eat it too.
But whether that’s actually possible remains to be seen. Many question the economics behind Apple’s rumored move. Cars are a high-cost, low-margin business and the industry is highly competitive. If the company is indeed building one it may be motivated, at least in part, by the whims of its chief designer, Jony Ive, a car fanatic who is underwhelmed by existing vehicles. “There are some shocking cars on the road,” Ive told the New Yorker in a profile published this week. “One person’s car is another person’s scenery.”
Musk is happy to wait years to turn a profit, and seems motivated at least as much by a desire to save the planet. At the moment, Wall Street seems happy to go along with him. As for Uber, its globally successful model has inspired an almost equally global backlash. The future of the car may be here, but for the future of the car business, we might have to wait a little longer.