Apple & Cars

So the latest rumor this week is that Apple is going to develop a car. They’re hiring automotive designers and engineers. Yes, it would be totally awesome if Apple came out with a car, and it kicked GM/Ford/Chrysler’s asses the same way the iPhone kicked Microsoft and Blackberry’s asses.

But can Apple fix any of the issues that currently face electric vehicles? Or will they just be a slightly different $100,000 Tesla, splitting the market that is not really that big in the first place?


As I’ve discussed before, the batteries in the new iPhones rival the batteries in Tesla’s Model S in some aspects, but fall behind in others. The six critical battery parameters are:

  • Cycle life: number of full battery charge/discharge cycles to 80% of its original capacity
  • Volumetric Energy Density: number of watt-hours of energy the battery can store per unit volume, usually measured in watt-hours per liter (Wh/l)
  • Gravimetric Energy Density: number of watt-hours of energy the battery can store per unit of mass, usually measured in watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg)
  • Power: the ability of the battery to generate or accept power, measured using rate-capacity defined as the C-rate – 1C is charging or discharging the battery in one hour, 0.5C is two hours, 2C is 30 minutes, and 10C is 6 minutes
  • Safety: how much torture can the battery withstand before it becomes a danger to the people around it
  • Cost: the price per usable kWh of battery capacity for the vehicle

Assuming the 1,000 cycle life promise Apple made when it went to sealed batteries is still true, that would provide for a long lifetime (for a 200 mile EV, 1,000 cycles to 80% yields about 180,000 miles on the pack before it only gets about 160 miles per charge).

The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus battery’s energy densities are quite good – 250Wh/kg and 575 Wh/l. The battery cells in the Tesla Model S are around 250Wh/kg and 700Wh/l. This means Apple’s equivalent batteries would weight the same, but take up 22% more space – this is a difficult thing to overcome, so Apple would need to be very creative on how they can come up with more space to store the battery pack relative to Tesla’s battery pack.

The power output of the current iPhone batteries is unknown, rate capacity generally isn’t an issue for batteries in small consumer electronics. The iPhone and iPad batteries can usually recharge in about 1 to 2 hours, which indicates a C-rate of 1C. Batteries for EVs generally need a C-rate of 2C to support fast chargings and highway speeds in all conditions (rain, snow, headwinds, etc.).

Apple’s batteries are generally safe. The lithium polymer cells are a lot safer than the NCA chemistry used in the Tesla Model S.

Finally cost, Apple and Tesla produce roughly on the same scale now (see below) but Tesla has a much more aggressive ramp planned for battery production than Apple does. And the lead time on building new battery manufacturing capacity is pretty long.

Quantities, Oh God The Mass Quantities, of Batteries

Next I wanted to figure out how many kWh of batteries Apple sold in 2014. This is pretty difficult because Apple’s phone models have different cell sizes: 5/5S/5C varied between 5.45 and 5.96Wh, the 6 has 6.91Wh, the 6 Plus has 11.1Wh. So beyond that, the mix of how many phones sold is unknown, so thats another estimation we have to factor in.

Lets assume that for the first three quarters of 2014 (no iPhone 6/6 Plus), the average battery size per phone sold was 5.7Wh, and in the final quarter the average battery size was 6.5Wh. In the first three quarters they sold 118M iPhones, and in the insane fourth quarter they sold about 75M iPhones (mix of 5-series and 6-series phones). This results in 672 MWh of batteries sold in the first three quarters and 487 MWh of cells sold in the final quarter, for an iPhone total of 1,159 MWh of cells, or just over a gigawatt-hour of energy storage devices.

The iPad sold 63.35M units. We can judge from the average selling price of around $420, that a lot more iPad minis are being sold than traditional, larger iPads. If we assume that the mix is 4 mini iPads to 1 large iPad (either last gen or current gen), then the average battery capacity was 25Wh, which is a total of 1,583 MWh of batteries.

This brings us to an approximate total of 2.75 GWh of battery cells produced by Apple for just the iPad and iPhone line. This doesn’t include the batteries used in the iPod or in Mac laptops. Estimating the mixes and volumes of laptops and iPods is beyond my expertise at this moment.

Meanwhile, Tesla sold 31,600 or so cars. If the average unit battery capacity was 75kWh (3 85kWh units for every 2 60kWh units sold), that would yield about 2,370 MWh, or 2.37 gigawatt-hours. For comparison, the Gigafactory will be able to produce 35 GWh of batteries.

It is safe to say that Apple uses more batteries than Tesla in 2014. However, that may change in 2015, as Tesla will try to grow their overall production by 70%, increasing their total annual usage to about 4 gigawatt-hours. Apple, with iPad sales flattening or even declining, likely will not see a 45% increase in battery cell usage to keep up with Tesla.

(the logistics and supply chain people at Apple really do the Lord’s work, hats off to them)

Design & Engineering

I have no doubt Apple’s design team would have a field day with an Apple-mobile. I just hope its as practical as it is beautiful. One of the recent thoughts that has caught my attention is that the value in the car itself is changing. Thirty years ago, 0% of the value of a car came from the software. As the cars got better, engine computers became more advanced, and the infotainment systems in cars became more prevalent, the value of software has increased, from 10% to 40% over the next 10 years as cars learn how to drive themselves, manage their internal components, and become more “smart” in general.

This puts companies like Apple and Google ahead of the game, with their fleets of software engineers and development know-how. Ford, GM, and everyone else has to play catch-up. Can they offer sufficient amounts of money and incentives to lure developers away from places like Apple and Google, where they could invent and develop things to change the world, to Ford, where they will make another difficult-to-use in-car infotainment system.

One interesting aspect would be Apple deciding to take advantage of Tesla’s offer to release all their patents. They can use the same skateboard battery module design and powertrain to underpin the car, with a new design and Apple flair to the rest of the car.

Actually Manufacturing the Car

Tesla’s most recent quarterly conference call brought out the bears – they’re burning cash like crazy on capital expenditures in order to ramp up for an annual run rate of 2,000 cars a week (100,000 per year) as well as building the Gigafactory that could make cells for 500,000 cars a year in 2020, plus batteries for renewable energy storage.

However, all this spending – $5 billion on a battery factory and $2B or so more on its factories in California, is just petty cash for Apple. Apple currently has a $177B cash pile, of which $150B is net of debt. Apple could easily invest $5B in the facilities to build the batteries and the cars – its not a matter of whether they have the cash, its if its the right way to spend that money.

More Importantly, Supporting the Car

The genius bar is usually pretty good about customer service (I haven’t been in a while, knock on wood), even if the lines are horribly long. But how does that translate to getting your Apple EV fixed? Most Apple Stores are in malls, not a place you can drive your car into to get fixed. So what does Apple do? If they go with automotive franchises, they lose their exacting control over the process. Beyond that, they run into the same problem as Tesla with franchises – it’ll be multiple brands under one roof since they will be a small-time player to begin with, and its always more profitable for the dealer to sell a higher maintenance gasoline car compared to a low-maintenance Apple EV because dealers make their money on service, not on new car sales.

It would make a lot of sense for Apple to partner with Tesla on the supercharger network, and infuse a boatload of cash to expand it to support the number of Apple EVs made. Here there are a lot of brand synergies between Apple and Tesla.

But What’s the Sustainable Competitive Advantage?

Apple would only be thinking about becoming a car manufacturer (because eventually it will be more than one car – it’ll be a line of cars) unless it thought it could bring something to the table that all the other companies out there (Ford, GM, Toyota) can’t, and that it would have a long term sustainable advantage. They aren’t trying to be like Elon Musk, who just wants to advance EVs and save the planet from carbon poisoning.

Design? Apple has impeccable design under Jony Ive. The Model S has great design, but lacks luxury in many ways that show its newness to the car industry (the seats, the small visor), and those are being fixed, but it will take a while. Apple will likely have some of these issues out of the gate too, but they would likely be fixed within the first few iterations.

Batteries? Could Apple be working on engineering and developing its own batteries? Not likely. As I illustrated above, Apple ships a tremendous amount of batteries every year. Is it enough to rely on the battery industry at large to continue to innovate in the battery space? Maybe not, but battery research is remarkably difficult – the annual improvement rate is only 7-8% and big breakthroughs are very rare, even if the scientific papers stack up to the ceiling. If Apple has something up it sleve to differentiate itself like working, mass-producible solid-state batteries that offer 700Wh/kg and 1300Wh/l, it would be a coup in the portable consumer electronics and EV worlds – phones as thin as 15 playing cards, cars that can go 400 miles without recharging. But this is very unlikely (I really hope I’m wrong but I doubt it).

Integration? This is always where Apple shines. Apple isn’t generally the first to move (they weren’t first with contactless payments) but they are usually the first to get it right from top to bottom, in a way that the user can understand. The difficulty here is that cars are a mature industry, very mature. Its easy to say that just about every company could do in-car computers better, even Tesla. Apple will show everyone how its done. But after that, and people understand the new paradigms for how people interact with cars, then what? This knowledge and innovation diffuses throughout the industry and becomes general knowledge in the same way physical keyboards went away and capacitive touch screens became the norm.

Self Driving? The individual automakers aren’t doing all the heavy lifting individually, automotive suppliers like Bosch and startups like Mobile Eye are the ones coming up with the hardware and software to solve pieces of the autonomous driving puzzle. Apple could either redo that work or simply integrate parts from suppliers into a self driving system like Tesla is. It’s nothing terribly novel or unique.


The problem to be solved with Electric Vehicles is batteries – weight, volume, range, cycle life and safety. All five dimensions need to be improved, plus the cost will need to come down dramatically before the general public adopts EVs over gasoline cars (especially in the current gas price climate).

What isn’t a problem is design or features. Sure, design can be improved and refined, but a better designed car won’t bring out customers in droves. An electric car fits very nicely with Apple’s sustainability goals – working to have a cleaner environment, but there won’t be that much of a market given the current limitations on batteries. This is the problem Fisker had – brilliant design but they didn’t solve the battery problem in a new or novel way – and now they’re out of business.

Its difficult from the outside at this early stage to determine why Apple would want to develop a car, along with the immense investment that would need to accompany development and production if it had honest aspirations of being a worldwide automotive manufacturer. For Apple to enter the market, there needs to be some long-term competitive advantage here. I just don’t see it right now – just designing a better looking or more user friendly EV doesn’t solve the major pain points consumers have right now.

The problems with EVs are battery range, recharging time, and battery weight and volume. And Apple isn’t more or less likely to be the company with a group of electrochemists that discover a breakthrough than any other company, large or small, doing battery research today. It is for primarily that reason that I think Apple would be a fool to enter the automotive space, specifically EVs, in the short term. As cars transform from machery we operate to automated consumer electronics on wheels, there is a space for Apple and others who want to move in that line of products, but that transition is 10-15 years away.

Apple WATCH battery math update

One the things I mentioned during my Apple WATCH post was the estimated battery capacities. Well, thanks to iFixit, the iPhone’s battery characteristics have been revealed and using the same type of batteries in the WATCH would stand to improve on my estimates somewhat. Here are the figures for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus batteries

So what does this mean for the watch? That the battery capacity would be slightly higher than my original estimates of 1.9Wh or 520 mAh at 3.6V. Its more likely that the battery will end up around 600 mAh or 2.1Wh at 575Wh/L.

The Apple Watch & Batteries

One of the things not mentioned at today’s Apple Keynote was the battery life of the APPLE WATCH. It was implied that it would be recharged every night, there was nothing specific about the hardware itself.

Battery life is determined by three things – size of battery, power intensity of the CPU/SOC and the power consumption of the display.

We will assume the display is using the most efficient display possible – IGZO or aSi. This will minimize the power draw from the display as much as possible.

The CPU/SOC is likely minimized as much as it can for the first generation product. This is where Apple will need to innovate – integrating more and more functions from discrete chips in the APPLE WATCH package into one piece of silicon that can be fabricated at a small process (which as of right now is 20nm from TSMC).

Batteries, however, don’t progress as quickly as everything else. They improve at about 8% per year, and thats in a good year. It’s why we’re not all driving electric cars right now. Electrochemistry is difficult.

Specifically, the issue with the batteries for the APPLE WATCH is the volumetric energy density. Apple needs a battery that has a high volumetric energy density (measured in Wh per liter) so that they can cram as much watt-hours as they can inside a specific volume. This is different that EV companies, which are typically looking for high gravimetric energy density (Wh per kg).

Right now, some of the best batteries are about 700 Wh/l (for this application, NCM Li-Polymer from SK Innovation at 200Wh/kg and ~700Wh/l). If we assume the battery inside the WATCH is 30mm x 25mm x 5mm, or 3750 cubic millimeters, thats 0.00375 liters. If Apple used the best battery technology possible, they would have about 2.7Wh of storage (730mAh at 3.6V). That figure seems high, so I’m guessing they’re using something less substantial (probably in the 500 Wh/l range) around 1.9Wh, or 520mAh. 

The difficulty Apple faces when it comes to battery development is that it is largely on its own – most battery companies are working hard to increase the gravimetric energy density and the cycle life of batteries. For example. Li-S batteries, while the gravimetric energy density may increase to from 200 to 400Wh/kg, the volumetric energy density is only in the range of 425Wh/l. Lighter batteries do Apple no good – they need more space-efficient batteries.

This is why my hopes are dim for amazing battery life on the APPLE WATCH anytime soon. It will take several generations of hardware integration and software optimization before the product matures. But this is no different than the original iPhone, with its slow 2G data speeds, adequate battery life and no apps.

Apple October 22 Predictions

Apple will give a release date for Mavericks (October 25) and price ($20, $50 for server)

Apple announces new MacBook Pros (retina and regular) featuring Haswell CPUs for better battery life – discrete GPUs don’t go away, but they’re only available on the 15″ models due to PCB size constraints (as has been the case for many years now) but integrated Iris Pro replaces GF GT 650-level option

Apple mentions Mac Pro will ship at the end of November, with pricing and pre-orders to come some time next month – brief mention its Made In America, including gratuitous shots of manufaturing/assembly line

Apple announces new 9.7″ iPads in thinner design with same battery life and A7X CPU at the same 499 and above price points

Apple announces retina iPad mini for $379 with an A6X CPU, and regular (current gen) iPad mini for $279

Nothing groundbreaking, nothing crazy – no Apple TV (as in actual TV sets), no iWatch. And since its between the time the quarter closes but before the earnings statement on October 28, not a lot of detailed information will be revealed about sales numbers or material things like that.

iPhone 5S is a great upgrade from the 4S, but…

As a nerd who follows Apple, I have to maintain a delicate zen-balancing of wanting the latest and greatest, with the best specs and fastest everything, with the understanding Apple isn’t about the specs.

But the iPhone 5S is mostly a miss for this iPhone 5 owner. Its a great upgrade over a 4S model – users who upgrade from the 4S will see amazing speed improvements in the CPU, GPU, cellular connectivity (LTE), and WiFi reception (using the 5GHz band instead of the ultra-congested 2.4GHz band).

But for the iPhone 5S, the areas in which Apple showed the biggest improvement (CPU, GPU) were already fast enough me, and iOS was always responsive even with the iOS 7 betas. I remember many times on my 4S while I was waiting for something to download and process, but I don’t have that on the iPhone 5 – between the A6 CPU and LTE, I’m quite content.

The areas that I did want to see improvement – LTE-Advanced radios, 802.11ac WiFi, and battery life went missing or didn’t get improved that much (battery life got a tiny boost, but not as much as I was hoping for if they had used IGZO screens).

I’m almost tempted to hold out and wait another year for the iPhone 6, particularly because I pay the premium to buy the 64GB model. I cant hold out because I already promised my phone to a family member when I bought it and used their upgrade, but I think that if I could, I would hold out for the 6.

Its a change in the way the cell phone market exists – phones only need to be compelling in two respects 1) against current competitors and 2) upgrade-worthy over the two year ago model once you’re locked into an ecosystem. All other concerns for Apple reside in the “ease of use” and “margins and profit” categories.

Apple iPhone 5S/5C Predictions

So we’re a little less than a month away from the September 10th unveiling of the new iPhones.

iPhone 5S:

  • A7 processor – still 32nm Samsung fabbed. An incremental upgrade over the A6 processor. Likely just improving the SWIFT core, accomplishing all the things they wanted to do with the first generation SWIFT (A6) but didn’t get time to. For the CPU, I expect a little IPC performance improvement, but stays dual core and increases the max clocks. For the GPU, I expect a non-trivial performance increase with a switch to the “Series6” Rouge GPU from PowerVR, probably in the neighborhood of 50%, with a much smaller increase in the die area.
  • Third-gen Qualcomm (MSM9625) baseband and WTR1625L radio front-end. This supports LTE-Advanced (carrier aggregation) and UE Cat4 speeds (150Mbps, which you’ll start to see as Verizon and T-Mobile roll out 20MHz FDD networks).
  • IGZO screen to save energy to make up for carrier aggregation (running two radios at once).
  • Support for 802.11ac (single stream up to 80MHz channels, similar to other smart phones).
  • Same storage and price points as the current iPhone 5. Apple’s margins are shrinking enough on the iPhone as-is, so they don’t want to let users pay $200 for a 32GB phone when they could pay $300. Small chance of seeing a 128GB iPhone (again, to boost margins).

BOM: ~$180

iPhone 5C (the C is for COLORS!)

  • Either an A6 CPU downclocked (parts that couldn’t make QA for the iPhone 5) from the iPhone 5 version, or a modified A6 CPU that is missing some features.
  • Second-gen Qualcomm LTE 9615 paired with WTR1605L radio. This will enable TD-SCDMA and TD-LTE for China Mobile.
  • Rest of parts similar to the iPhone 5, except for that the case is much much cheaper to make (cost savings of around $15/phone alone).

BOM: $135

My New Home Server

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 7.41.27 PMBack at CES in 2007, I was ecstatic to hear about Microsoft and HP designing a Home Server platform for people who wanted to have a centralized file storage system in their house. I built my first WHS box with two 750GB HDDs, it was good, but I outgrew that storage as I realized that I could rip and encode my DVDs and then store them on the iPhone, then play them on my PS3. I eventually upgraded to a HP MediaSmart Server. It was good, I expanded it to 3.5TB of storage space (about 2TB usable due to data duplication). It was supposed to support Time Machine backup support, but that never worked right. But it served well (no pun intended) up until 2012 when I had to send it in to replace the power supply at a cost of $125. I realized the time was running out on that hardware and I would need to replace it.

I thought about going the NAS route (Synology or something similar) but I wanted the functionality of a full computer in addition to file storage. What I ended up building is a Mac mini-based file server. The core is a 2012 Mac mini base model, upgraded by me to include a 64GB SSD (in addition to the 500GB drive it came with) as well as 16GB of RAM. The extra storage is provided by a CineRAID USB 3.0 external storage array. It has four bays, each one is filled with a 3TB WD Red HDDs designed for home NAS usage. I’m using Zevo ZFS to put the drives together in a RAID-Z2 array. I still haven’t figured out if ashift=9 or =12 is the right configuration. I need to benchmark the array when I find more free time, although one blog post found that when using Mac ZFS, ashift=12 worked better on 4K advanced format drives. I also used Liberate to share folders on the ZFS-formatted file system over AFS (instead of SMB).

The OS itself has been upgraded to OS X Server. This allows it to serve as a VPN endpoint as well as a Time Machine backup target for all the other Macs in the house. The VPN stuff works well, except for when the unsecured WiFi I’m trying to use blocks VPN, defeating the purpose of using their unsecured WiFi in the first place (unsecured WiFi transmits everything in the clear, including cookies necessary to provide security on websites like Facebook and Twitter, unsecured WiFi is always a bad idea).

I’ve installed a few pieces of software on the devices – Plex Server for sharing music and movies over DLNA to supported devices, and I keep iTunes running in the background for sharing to the two AppleTVs in the house, as well as all the iDevices (iPhone, iPad). I also installed Handbrake to let the server handle all the encoding responsibilities, and Subler to attach metadata to ripped movies. The only caveat with iTunes is that you have to manually add new music and movies (which means I have to VNC into the server and add them manually – Plex will auto-scan for new titles).

Viewing the movies is done from my Samsung TV in the office over DLNA (via Plex) or on my main TV or bedroom TV on an AppleTV. I had originally tried to use a PS3 for viewing, however there is some new content copy protection called Cinavia. It is an audio-based copy protection system that survives downcoding, transcoding, conversion to mono, whatever you can throw at it. It takes about 20 minutes to work, and will cut off the audio and display an error message. The browsing experience on the AppleTV looks really good – especially when the metadata and the artwork is added to the movie file.

I’m pretty happy with the result. It was expensive though – the Mac mini is $600, the external array was $160, and the four HDDs are $640. The 16GB of RAM was $80, the iFixit 2nd Drive kit was $50, and a 64GB SSD was $70, for a total of $1600. The upside is that hopefully, I will be able to use this hardware for at least 3-5 years, maybe adding storage space along the way (another USB 3.0 external enclosure and more HDDs). This will likely be my last computer-related purchase for a while, I’ve spent enough money on technology for now.

Fourth-gen iPad now? Why? And what Apple’s new lineup looks like…

At the Ars Technica Mac Forum, I made a post explaining why I think that Apple decided to release a 4th generation iPad now, in the fall, instead of the regular spring-time release.

Remember how there were all those rumors in 2011 about a second update to the iPad in the fall? But it never materialized? I’m willing to bet that it almost happened – except that the retina display yield issues caused it not to happen, so they went with the traditional spring launch. So instead of syncing up the iPhone/iPad release dates in 2011, they did it in 2012. This year since there were no yield issues with any parts (the A6X was ready to go), they changed the annual release date from spring to fall.

There were a TON of rumors about a fall 2011 iPad release [1] [2] [3]. But it didn’t happen. But now the iDevice launches are synced, mostly.

So here is what Apple’s new line-up looks like…

Spring/Summer: Mac (depending on when Intel makes the new chips available)
Summer (June/July): OSX release, iOS beta
Fall (September/October): iDevices – iPhone first, then iPod, iPad, including iOS

So 2013 looks like…

March – OSX 10.9 Beta
June – WWDC, new Mac Laptops, desktops maybe
July – OSX 10.9 Release, new Mac Pros (?)
September – iPhone 5S, iPods, iPads