Autonomous cars are destined to become fleet cars. Services like Uber and Lyft depend on the idea that riders don’t want to own cars, but only to rent them when needed. Making the cars drive themselves removes the need for people to operate them, too—thereby snuffing out all the human pleasure associated with driving. While still hypothetical, Google’s autonomous cars will likely work the same way. Like many technology businesses, Google and Uber are based on the premise that people don’t want to own anything—whether a word processor or an automobile—but only to borrow them on-demand.
Leasing a car feels much the same as owning one. The lessee is still responsible for it, still garages it, still winces at dings on its surface. But nowadays, a different kind of lease has become common: the transient usage of software-driven services that appear and disappear at whim. Google Docs leaves much to be desired, but who cares when it’s free and easy to use? A particular Uber ride might be more or less unpleasant than another, but soon enough it will drive away never to be seen again. Goods become tools, and temporary ones at that.
But yet, people do care about cars that way. Or at least, they did. As automobiles become more like online software services, travelers will become less attached to their aesthetic properties. As I’ve written about before, Tesla has already begun preparing car culture for the end of the automobile as an object of desire. The Model S is a supercar that’s as stylish as a pair of Dockers. Google’s prototype for a cute pod of a self-driving car does something similar. Uber’s early autonomous cars are about as unsexy as they come: a fleet of Ford Fusions topped with big, LIDAR hats—hardly the kind of vehicle that could adorn posters on adolescent bedroom walls. As my colleague Megan Garber put it, cars like these take the automotive logic of the 20th century— “cars as luxury, cars as freedom, cars as sex”—and flip it on its head. Now vehicles are becoming a commodity and a service. What’s less sexy than a car a bunch of other people have also recently occupied?
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The increasing un-sexiness of cars helps explain a startling, recent rumor: that Apple is in talks to acquire or invest in the British supercar company McLaren.
McLaren is best known for its Formula 1 pedigree, although the company also makes million-dollar road cars for the very wealthy. In recent years, the company has also expanded into design consulting and parts, strengths it developed thanks to the unforgiving conditions of Formula 1 racing. Estimated to be worth about $2 billion, Apple could easily snap up the company with some of its $200 billion or so in cash reserves.
Apple, meanwhile, has reportedly been developing its own electric and/or autonomous vehicle program. As with everything Apple, the company has been secretive about its plans. One thing we do seem to know about “Project Titan,” as the Apple project was code-named, is that it recently underwent a dramatic restructuring, including a number of layoffs. All is not well in Apple’s garage.