Maybe Apple Just Wants Better Batteries?

Rumours continue to circulate about Apple building a car (now it’s all-electric and will hit the streets in 2020). There’s a Bloomberg report making this claim now. To back up the claim, some are pointing to Apple’s alleged poaching of people from of engineers from A123, a maker of large batteries, mainly for vehicles. Other stories claim Apple has been luring away engineers from Tesla, a relatively new electric car manufacturer. But are some reading too much into this?

Batteries Everywhere

Think about the world of mobile computing. What does it feature prominently? Batteries. Everything we use runs on them. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, accessories. Batteries, along with wireless communications, allow our mobile devices to be mobile.

What is a frequent complaint about batteries? They don’t last long enough. No matter how many hours we get, we want more. Give us 4 hours and we want 8. Give us 8 and we want 12. Give us a week and we want a month. Recharging means tethering our mobile devices to a wire to pump electrons back into them. Wireless devices must become wired, our mobile devices immobilized for some number of minutes (or hours). Even induction charging means our portable devices have to sit on a desk or counter for some period of time.

Not Waiting For Academia

A lot of research continues to be performed on batteries and power storage in universities and research institutes around the world. Some companies are also engaged in primary research, not just product research, to understand how to store energy. But that takes time. Consumers are impatient, and they don’t want to wait for something to come out of a research lab, then spend more time in product development, before it becomes something they can line up for on launch day.

Maybe Apple has decided to ramp up its own battery research to try to speed things up. After all, they aren’t hiring “automotive battery engineers”, they are hiring “battery engineers” that have been focused on batteries for cars. Granted, it isn’t necessarily the first thing you would think of, but other than the difference in size, the problems are similar.

No matter the scale, there are several issues with batteries: how long they last, how big they are, how much they weigh, how long it takes to recharge, how many recharge cycles they support before they can’t hold a charge, and heat dissipation. Whether we are talking the tiny battery in your Bluetooth headset or 500lbs of batteries in an automobile, all of these challenges are present to some degree. People want batteries that last a long time, recharge quickly, can handle many years of recharge cycles, but they also want them as small and light as possible. We are still figuring out how to make that all happen more effectively.

Until Kara Says So…

With the exception of one journalist, almost no one ever seems to get an Apple prediction right. These “experts” with supposedly solid “inside information” have predicted Apple announcing a television set for the past 2 years now. None have appeared. They predicted sapphire screens on iPhones when Apple went in big with a sapphire manufacturer. The only sapphire that appeared was on the fingerprint sensor and camera lens cover (which is still a lot of sapphire, by the way). They’ve been predicting a Retina display for MacBook Air for nearly 2 years. All manner of fanciful new products have been imagined, and virtually none of them have appeared.

The only person who seems to get it right, or at least close, is Kara Swisher, and I don’t see her talking about Apple’s impending car. Again, I think Apple would rather work with several automobile manufacturers to get a real presence in the car market. There are 75-80 million cars sold globally each year. Even in their best year, Apple might be lucky to sell a few tens of thousands of their own car. A partnership with any 3 manufacturers (say a luxury brand and a couple of broader brands) gets their products in front of millions of customers. A relationship with VW, GM and Toyota would get them into about 70% of all new vehicles sold around the world. Add in Honda, Nissan, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai and BMW, and that nets you about 80-85% of the car market.

I don’t believe Apple is designing a car. I think they are doing 2 things. First, they are improving their own battery research capability. Second, they are experimenting with ways to integrate more closely with the car. I’m just not convinced building a car makes sense.