Fantasy: Apple, don't make an 'iCar' -- an 'iBike' makes much more sense

"I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like, it's got a basket and a bell that rings and things to make you look good." Syd Barrett

There's some discussion speculating Apple [AAPL] may one day move to introduce a connected vehicle, dubbed (and why not) "iCar"; but perhaps the company could achieve something far more wonderful and grab huge sales in the developing markets with another mode of transportation it might take a firm with $130 billion in the bank to achieve, an iBike.

[ABOVE: This conceptual video of an Apple motorbike set me off thinking on this. It's a neat idea, but I love Harley's too much. So why not an Apple cycle?]

Making it personal

Think about it. If it weren't for self-centred, psychotic motorists and death-defying highway layouts, the bicycle would be the very best mode of urban travel. It's a simple concept -- two wheels, one rider and pedal, pedal, pedal (with gears and brakes). You can't get a more mobile mobile device.

Electric bicycle usage worldwide has experienced rapid growth since 1998. Estimates claim around 120 million e-bikes in China as of early 2010, and sales are expanding rapidly elsewhere. 700,000 electric bicycles were sold in Europe in 2010. Take a look at NYCEWheels if these things interest you.

This must be a market worth thinking about. Not only that, but the relationship between a rider and their bike is incredibly personal -- you are completely reliant on your riding skills and your bike when you're on the road.

Some may point to Apple's relationship with the automobile industry (such as Eddy Cue's place on Ferrari's board) as an argument against the notion, but these firms are already building electric bikes -- so why not improve the inherent technology?

Let's think about what Apple might deliver to enhance this experience. Here's three ways the company could jump into the existing market for such transportation and deliver something world class doing it.

Power

Electric bicycles have one big problem -- energy efficiency.  Most commercially available electronic bikes only make 20-50 miles out of a single charge, which is fine for some trips, but could be improved.

Blink and you probably missed it, but Apple's iOS devices stand at the top of the tree when it comes to smart device battery life -- yes, there are longer lived batteries in some devices, but these tend to include bigger cells. The point here is that Apple and its partners are already developing energy cell technology which could conceivably be deployed inside larger batteries for use in personal transportation devices, hopefully increasing vehicle range.

The problem is recharging the things. How many people in an urban environment can realistically recharge their steed in the street outside their door? It seems evident that batteries need to be removable and replaceable, in order that you can recharge them indoors while leaving your bike parked elsewhere.  

The bugbear here is that the notion of removable batteries is something Apple's resisted, at least in mobile devices. A quick scan of a few product detail sheets for these systems suggests more lack a removable battery, but there's advantages to changing this.

If your batteries are removable, what's to stop a company developing solutions of this kind from also offering solar panel recharge solutions for use when that makes sense, in addition to domestic electricity. While some designs don't, most basically help you simply pedal these things. This means  it also makes sense to ensure batteries draw a little charge as you pedal along (as you get in bikes from BionX).

Apple could apply its know-how in battery cell technology to deliver a better system.

Theft

Bike theft is rampant. Law enforcement logs these thefts, but it's rare that a bicyclist gets their treasured steed back. That's a shame.

What's Apple got to stop this happening?

Find my iPhone, of course. Not only could you use the same technology to enable easy discovery and reclamation of your electronic bike, but you could also use it to remember just where you parked the blooming thing.

What else -- within existing technology -- makes sense for a connected electronic vehicle? Three notions:

Maps: Using Siri you just ask for the map. Your bike tells you where you are going. Speakers are built-in to the frame. With a small screen on the handlebars so you can see things too. It's possible the brains of the device are situated inside your iPhone, you have a headset to make calls (if you're brave enough). Music playback is also supported -- no headphones required, and while that experience wouldn't be perfect the speakers are calibrated to give you a decent listening sensation without dampening too much background noise. You need the latter to keep yourself safe and aware.

Pedomoter and exercise sensors: Yes, there's apps for this, so why not have such intelligence built-into your machine? Figure out how many calories you've burned, how far you've travelled, how long it will be until you need to recharge.

Find your friends: You're on a busy road. You're riding with friends, but you've had to separate. Traditionally you call each other on your phones and endure all sorts of fuss and bother to find each other. Not with Apple's bike. You get guided toward each other, all you have to do is ask it to do this for you.

The killer feature here is the theft protection. In conjunction with the various forms of biometric security Apple's theoretically exploring, your bike could know when it's being ridden away by some miscreant and quietly call you to let you know it has been, as we in the UK like to say, "nicked".

[ABOVE: "There are nine million bicycles in Beijing" she sings. She sees a hit single. I see a hit product opportunity.]

Safety

I'm sure a lot more people would ride bikes if they felt safe doing so. What can Apple put together that might boost the personal safety of riders?

Sensors might help. Sensors to analyse the speed and momentum of surrounding vehicles; sensors to help you look behind you, perhaps even a rear view made available on the screen situated between your handlebars. Of course systems like these won't be foolproof, but they should help people stay safe on the road.

In the event of an accident, these bikes could, for example, maintain regular images of surrounding traffic in order that should something happen, those vehicles most likely to have caused the situation would be photographed and logged to iCloud.

This would be continuous, though the image archive would be time limited. That car driving dangerously behind you on your blind side may not be visible to you, but your rear-mounted cycle camera would have seen the vehicle creeping toward you.

In the event they knocked you over, their details could be made available to law enforcement. They wouldn't escape responsibility by driving away. This would perhaps make automobile drivers a little more respectful toward those on bikes. That little additional respect would likely reduce the number of fatal collisions between badly-driven cars and bikes. And with the bike constantly checking and coaching the rider, bad cyclists could also be named and shamed.

Of course, you need to have a sense of balance to ride a bike. Might Apple acquire rights to use some of the technologies used inside Segway devices in order to create balance assistance systems in these steeds? In this particular slice of "anything is possible" thinking, I really cannot see why not.

Design

Yes, this is a fourth item. Apple's design teams are led by one of the world's best designers. People might well enjoy an electronic bike that was beautifully and simply designed.

So, what are we imagining here? We have a bike that can't easily be stolen and is full of additional safety features. It's intelligent and connected and guaranteed to get you where you want to go. Easy to ride this vehicle has built-in protection to reduce the risk of physical accidents, including tools to monitor and improve a rider's driving style.

Not only the above, but these things look good and would no doubt attract attention all across China (and beyond) as it stood proudly in the window displays at Apple retail stores. Solar-powered and equipped with highly efficient battery technology, the system could make cycling safer, more popular, and, sold in the hundreds of millions, could significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuel vehicles.

I know this entire report is highly speculative, but you have to say - it's such a shame Apple's so doomed, because a system like this could be a hugely positive contribution to urban consumer lifestyles.

If there isn't already an Apple-branded system like this inside of the company's labs, then you have to ask why there isn't, as this is a booming sector of personal technology that's many, many times better for the planet than any self-driving car.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies