If the Apple Car Looks Anything Like This, Apple Is in Trouble

Motor Trend assembled a team of designers to imagine what the Apple Car will look like.

Illustration by Motor Trend / reprinted with permission

Motor Trend magazine managed to capture the automotive world’s attention on Wednesday with a cover story that it billed as an “exclusive” look at the much-hyped but closely guarded Apple car.

After a long, circuitous lead-in, the story turned out to be an elaborate work of speculative journalism, centered on an even more elaborate work of speculative design. The magazine enlisted a team of design professors and students from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, to dream up their own vision for the Apple Car, based on—well, their own imaginations, mostly.

Aside from a handful of leaked rumors and anecdotes, no one outside Cupertino seems to know very much about what the actual Apple Car will entail, thanks to the intense secrecy surrounding the company’s “Project Titan.” We know it will be electric (probably), semi-autonomous (possibly), and won’t launch until at least 2020—assuming it ever does. (The project’s leader, Steve Zadesky, stepped down in January.)

After reading Motor Trend’s “exclusive,” we know just as little as before. The story reveals essentially no new facts about the project. But at least now we have a picture to argue over—a picture, that is, of what the Apple Car might look like if it were designed by some people at a design college in Pasadena, rather than by Apple. 

Not exactly inspiring, is it? Like an Apple Watch on wheels, it aims for elegant simplicity but winds up closer to cartoonish. But not cute-cartoonish, like the Googlemobile with its little koala face. It’s just sort of basic.

Let’s stipulate that designing a car is hard. Designing an attractive car is even harder, especially when you’re trying at the same time to make it look like no other car designed before. The task grows only taller if your goal is to rethink vehicle design from the wheels up in anticipation of a future in which cars drive themselves, as Motor Trend’s team attempted to do. As one auto blogger observed, the magazine might have done better to heed the advice of one of its own columns, which ran in a package alongside the cover story.

Others took issue with Motor Trend’s attempt to frame its design team’s musings as an “Apple car exclusive,” and a series of tweets that misled people into believing it had obtained actual leaked renderings of the vehicle. Jalopnik called the piece extraordinarily dumb and dishonest.

The whole thing does carry the whiff of a stunt designed to gin up page-views and publicity. And it comes at a time when the auto industry is growing justifiably wary of projects that seem like vaporware. Just this week the electric car startup Faraday Future held a “groundbreaking” in which it didn’t actually break any ground, because the land hasn’t even been graded yet.

But let’s give Motor Trend a break here. Its job isn’t to build cars, or even design them. It is to report on them, yes—something it didn’t do much of, in this case. But it’s also to analyze and criticize and wax philosophical and even speculate about them. 

Easy as it is to ridicule the work of Motor Trend’s ad hoc design squad, a more instructive takeaway from its thought experiment would be that Apple faces a very tall order in designing an automobile as iconic as the iMac or the iPhone. Surely Cupertino’s finest can do better than Motor Trend did. But how much better? For an Apple car to even come close to fulfilling the grand expectations it will surely face, the answer is going to have to be: an awful lot.

Previously in Slate: