Memo to Apple: make an electric car

Allister Heath
WHAT a tragedy Apple doesn’t make cars. We would all be better off if it did. With the price of oil spiraling again, the world needs a real alternative to traditional, petrol-powered cars – not a slightly fake, subsidised, feel-good half-solution that appeases Western consciences, but a proper, competitive, efficient and high-performance electric car that people would actually choose to buy on its automotive merits. Given that established car makers (including in Asia) have failed to deliver, that smaller start-ups have yet to make a breakthrough and that many experts still argue that a good diesel car remains more efficient than even the best hybrids produced by Japan’s finest, it is time for truly fresh thinking.

One reason I hope Apple enters that market is personal experience. My new iPad boasts a battery that seems to last for ever – perhaps even quite a bit longer than the 10 hours or so claimed by the manufacturer. This is astonishing for a portable, hand-held device of substantial power and capability. For the first time, a consumer electronics firm has beaten my expectations. The boundaries of what is possible have been pushed right back. One of the key stumbling blocks to proper electric cars is battery technology – hence a great opportunity for its boss Steve Jobs.

I didn’t used to like Apple. It remains an arrogant company – but even erstwhile sceptics such as myself must now accept that it is delivering the goods, smashing cosy markets and changing entire industries and cultures in its wake. The problem with the car making industry is that it is dominated (surprise, surprise) by car makers – just like the mobile phone market used to be dominated by the likes of Nokia or Samsung and the music industry used to be controlled by music firms. No longer. Apple blew the old order away; it would be great if it could do the same with the automotive industry.

There have been major improvements to electric car technology but not yet quite enough to see the market take off, despite myriad subsidies and tax breaks. Silicon Valley-based Tesla Motors only sells 15 or so cars a week; but its Roadster has a range of at least 236 miles and accelerates from zero to 60 mph in under four seconds, a top speed of 125 mph and costs around £88,000. A full recharge of the battery system requires 3½ hours using a special High Power Connector; unfortunately, it can take up to 48 hours using a regular domestic socket. Another problem is that the charged battery weighs about 450kg.

Obviously, setting up refueling points would be a massive challenge – but what is needed is an innovative system. Perhaps outlets could stock lots of pre-charged batteries, with a method found to load a fresh battery into a car within the space of a few minutes. Batteries would no longer be owned by the car owner but by the energy retailer. Of course, batteries would have to become much lighter than they are now. This is the kind of fresh thinking that is required – but we are unlikely to get it from the established players.

So here is my plea to Steve Jobs: use your battery technology, your design ability and your astonishing commercial nous to make an iCar which can drive at proper speeds for proper lengths of time and costs a reasonable sum of money. Then blow all your competitors away. The car industry is ripe for a real revolution of the kind only Apple can deliver.