Apple Better Be Ready for the Mad World of Car Regulations
Apple, it seems, is serious about building an electric car, and it wants to have something on the market by 2019. According to The Wall Street Journal, the predicted car will be electric, and a later model will be fully autonomous.
Developing a car that runs on electricity and can drive itself will be hard, but those challenges obscure another major barrier to putting a vehicle up for sale: the federal government and its many, many, rules for how you make a car. Like, more than a thousand pages of rules.
Title 49, Subtitle B, Chapter V, Part 571 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” lays out in excruciating detail the standards manufacturers must follow for any passenger car (or bus, or motorcycle) they intend to sell.
Apple has built a reputation for an intense focus on detail, micromanaging every bit of its hardware and software to make its phones, tables, and computers just so—and highly successful. To get into the car business, it will still need that focus on the tiniest of things, but it will no longer be in control of the standards it’s working to meet. Federal guidelines dictate everything from the size and color of the turn signal in the dashboard, to the icon for the fuel gauge, to the exact force each occupant’s seat must be able to withstand.
The vehicle identification number (VIN), for example, must be 17 characters, without using “I,” “O,” or “Q.” The type face has to be in capitals, in sans serif typeface. (At least Apple’s “San Francisco” font will comply.) The icons in Apple’s hypothetical car, for things like traction control, low tire pressure, and high beams will be the same as those in every modern car you’ve driven, because they’re prescribed by the feds.
The kinematic viscosities of brake fluid must be at least 1.5 mm2/s at 100 degrees C. Every bit of material within 13 millimeters of the cabin must meet flammability requirements (for the test, BTW, “each specimen is conditioned for 24 hours at a temperature of 21 degrees C, and a relative humidity of 50 percent, and the test is conducted under those ambient conditions”).
The rules even govern the exact dimensions of sideview mirrors: “The mirror shall provide the driver a view of a level road surface extending to the horizon from a line, perpendicular to a longitudinal plane tangent to the driver’s side of the vehicle at the widest point, extending 2.4 m out from the tangent plane 10.7 m behind the driver’s eyes, with the seat in the rearmost position.”
This small sampling doesn’t even get into crash testing, which brings its own mountain of exacting standards. And if the feds discover you’ve messed something up, you’ll be told to recall every car you’ve sold and fix the mistake, on your dime.
The thousand pages of standards are a spectacular lesson in how to focus on minutia, but they’re all there for a reason. They’re about making cars as safe as possible. They’re all feasible, of course, but together they provide a daunting number of boxes to check in the next four years. And, more to the point in Apple’s case, they’re not going anywhere.
Tesla proved it’s still possible to start an automaker from scratch in the US, and Apple has orders of magnitude more cash on hand than Elon Musk’s outfit ever did. As of July, it had $203 billion in cash on hand. So if it can’t figure anything out for itself, it can hire someone to get it right, or just buy the solution.
The whole project seems like a strange one for a company built on far smaller, cheaper gadgets, but the car could fit into a longterm strategy. With the Watch, Apple placed itself in the luxury market. By 2019, Apple will have spent four years selling a $17,000 watch. So the idea of a $50,000 car might not seem so crazy when you see it in the window of the Jonny Ive’s design store.
But Apple’s total lack of experience in this industry means it’s got a gargantuan amount of studying to do if the feds are going to let it sell a car at all.
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