How Apple Really Could Disrupt the Auto Business

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Apple Store on Fifth Ave. in New York City. Source: Apple.

Is Apple really gearing up to build a car?

To say that Apple doesn't talk about future products is an understatement -- the company is famously secretive. But longtime Apple-watchers know that where there's smoke, there's often fire -- and there have been a lot of reports suggesting that Apple is up to something car-related.

I don't think Apple is building a car to rival Tesla. I think it's doing something much more interesting -- and potentially much more disruptive. Read on.

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What if it's developing an automated ride-sharing service instead? Not an alternative to a mainstream car, but an alternative to the idea of owning a car?

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are clearly on to something. What if Apple is taking that idea one big step further: a ride-sharing service that uses self-driving electric cars that deliver an Apple experience.

What if, in exchange for a monthly fee (that might be about the size of a car payment), you could get Apple-quality transportation whenever you needed it -- without the costs and hassles of car ownership?

No more gas stations, no more mechanic's bills, no more driving. No more parking!

We don't know much about Apple's effort yet. Like any other theory about what Apple might be planning, this is speculation. But there's one detail in the reports that makes me think this is where Apple is going: The Wall Street Journal's original report on Apple's maybe-car effort cited "people familiar with the matter" who said Apple's car resembles a minivan.

A minivan doesn't make a lot of sense if you're out to challenge Tesla's hot-looking Model S -- or any other automaker, for that matter. Minivans aren't "gotta-have" products. But it makes all the sense in the world if your design focus is on the experience of the people inside the vehicle.

And that might be the kind of business that would appeal to Apple -- and unlike an electric car for consumers, it's one that could truly disrupt the auto business.

How to disrupt the auto business
Let's think about this from a Silicon Valley perspective. How do you "disrupt" the auto business?

The auto business has been around for over 100 years. The principal incumbents are all huge, multinational companies that have been around (and been dominant) for many decades. The costs of entry are very high, because it costs a fortune to develop a car and build a factory capable of mass-producing it -- but the profit margins are slim.

Those aren't the only factors that make disruption a challenge. Legal requirements like safety and environmental regulations mean that much of a car's shape and structure is dictated from the start by outside forces. And structural requirements dictate even more: Cars have to function on the roads that already exist. (How do you disrupt roads and the endless list of businesses that rely on them?)

One disrupts an industry by offering consumers a compelling solution to problems the incumbents haven't solved. Think about this: What do people hate about cars?

Not a whole lot, I'd argue. Modern cars are safe and reliable and fun to drive and full of creature comforts. The auto industry is really good at making cars, and it's getting better at it all the time.

But let's back up for a minute and ask this question instead: What do people hate about the experience of car ownership? That's an easier question to answer: Parking hassles, repairs, and traffic jams, for starters.

With a well-designed car service, the first two hassles are just gone. An Apple car service won't solve the problem of traffic jams by itself, at least not yet. But wouldn't a traffic jam be much more bearable if you were a passenger in a comfortable van designed by Apple -- a limousine as reimagined by Jony Ive and Apple's brilliant design team, with Apple-quality connectivity and entertainment features? One that reliably arrives when you need it, and goes away after it drops you off? One that remembers your preferences, every time?

I think a lot of people would be willing to trade their cars for that, if it worked well. And if it caught on widely, the social benefits could be immense.

Tesla isn't really disruptive, but this might be
Some investors point to Tesla Motors as a disruptive force. Tesla has done something huge: It has credibly and successfully entered the auto business. But it hasn't disrupted the auto business -- and even if Tesla's sales take off, and the company becomes an auto-making giant, I don't think it will.

If anything, it's possible to argue that the auto business has disrupted Tesla, or at least Tesla's early expectations. Look at Tesla's swelling capital expenditures and research and development costs, and its postponed expectations of significant profits. The auto business is learning a lot from watching Tesla, but Tesla is also learning a lot from the auto business -- and in the process, I think Tesla is looking a lot more like an automaker (albeit a fast-growing, innovative one).

Apple has a lot more money to spend than Tesla. As I argued when the reports of a possible Apple car first surfaced, Apple's huge war chest and design chops would make it a formidable, credible auto-industry competitor. (And no, I don't think Apple is going to buy Tesla.)

But building and selling a car sounds like a big, expensive, low-profit headache for Apple. A ride-sharing service that delivers an Apple experience (and is priced to deliver Apple-like profit margins) makes a whole lot more sense -- and has the potential to upend the long-standing idea of car ownership, and all of the environmental and safety issues that come with it, in a profound way.

What do you think? Is this where Apple is going? Scroll down to leave a comment with your thoughts.

The article How Apple Really Could Disrupt the Auto Business originally appeared on Fool.com.

John Rosevear owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.