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Finding the good in a bad Apple Car story

This morning Motor Trend published its “exclusive” on an imagined Apple Car, featuring illustrations and renderings from staff at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design. Inside the notoriously catty Media Twitter circle, the piece has been universally panned: “just embarrassing,” says WSJ’s Christopher Mims. “We Gathered A Group Of Experts Together To Make The Worst Possible Apple Car,” joked BuzzFeed‘s John Paczkowski, riffing on a possible MT headline.

And yes, Motor Trend deserves a lot of ribbing, particularly because it spent a full day on Twitter teasing that it had some sort of huge Apple Car scoop coming today. (In reality, there isn’t a modicum of actual information about Apple’s plans, even though MT dares to call its story “exclusive.”) But if you read through it, the discussion happening between the creatives in the room is actually pretty fascinating as they try to suss out what an Apple Car could be, what Apple could be trying to accomplish, and how it might differentiate itself from other products in the market. It mostly reads like a transcription of a podcast between a bunch of subject matter experts — and goodness knows we all love a good podcast.

In fact, what’s happening here is no different than what has been happening in the auto and tech media for years: go back decades and you can find countless examples of magazines riffing on rumors and nonexistent products, complete with beautiful illustration of cars you’ll never be able to buy. Likewise, every iPhone and Galaxy product cycle brings with it a flood of conceptual renders — dreams for what we hope the next model will offer, usually fueled more by the editor’s creativity than industry intel.

You can find countless examples of magazines riffing on rumors and nonexistent products

There’s nothing wrong with any of this! It’s a release valve, an outlet for artistic liberty, and a way to throw gasoline on the perpetual hype cycle that we all know and love. (Yes, love — we have the traffic charts to prove it.) Hard data on future products is wonderful, of course, but so is an active imagination.

But these kinds of conceptualizations — at least the good ones — are either based on evidence, wild fantasies, or both. Instead, Motor Trend landed somewhere in the vast no-man’s-land in between, working off of essentially zero information and rendering a bland, lifeless, ’90s-vintage concept car in a garish shade of champagne gold. It’s somehow neither fantastical nor realistic, which lands it in a terrible place.

Seriously, I can’t begin to explain how deeply screwed up this fake car is. It’s design by committee that seems to lack even a basic understanding of Apple’s ethos, dotted by a hodgepodge of concept car fads from past and present: cameras in place of side-view mirrors, augmented-reality windshields, gull-wing doors. It’s a textbook example of skating to the puck rather than to its trajectory. And did I mention it’s gold, apparently because Apple makes gold iPhones?

The Apple Car will not likely be what we expect, or what we imagine

MT went into this blind, but it’s entirely possible that they didn’t realize just how blind; auto journalists are still learning how to cover tech, after all, just as tech journalists are still learning how to cover transportation. What they may not have known is that, historically speaking, reading Apple’s tea leaves is a fool’s errand. The technologies and design elements that Apple adopts are rarely what we expect, or what seem obvious. The first-generation iPhone supported neither apps nor high-speed data, which seemed like ridiculous and insurmountable shortcomings at the time. Don’t even get me started on the non-removable battery.

Similarly, the Apple Car — assuming it exists (a fair question!) and will ever come to bear fruit — will not likely be what we expect, or what we imagine. That’s not to say it will be better, necessarily, just different. Pulling from a grab-bag of ideas we’ve seen elsewhere seems particularly unrealistic, especially when they’re assembled into an anonymous pod that looks like it rolled off the set of 1993’s Demolition Man.

But despite it all, I love the effort. We should never stop having conversations about the future, no matter how ridiculous or improbable. I hope Motor Trend‘s failure doesn’t cast an insurmountable pall on this kind of thing. Even in the most aggressive estimates, an Apple Car is three or four years away, so we have a lot of space to fill — let’s fill it with our imaginations. Envisioning the future isn’t just a function of the consumer-focused media, it’s human nature.

And between EVs, self-driving, ride-sharing, and the complete upheaval of the century-old auto industry, is there a more exciting field to conceptualize right now than transportation?


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