Will Steve Jobs' Influence On Cars--And Car Companies--Last?

August 25, 2011
Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs resigned today as CEO of Apple, but his legacy as an active creator and innovator of technology isn't done yet.

Despite medical problems, the most unlikely pickup driver of all time is expected to stay on as Apple's chairman, which means his tightly focused take on consumer electronics, and how they're marketed and presented, will go on for some time.

That means Jobs' influence will continue to make deep inroads into other industries. Cars are no exception. You can thank Jobs and Apple for everything from the way Tesla dealerships are located and styled, to the swarms of auto companies using iPads as sales tools and even media tools at major international auto shows.

The iPod has gutted high-end audio systems and forced automakers to rethink--yet again--how your music collection makes its way inside your car. It took us twenty years to go from cassettes to CDs--and about half that time to go from CDs to iPods, aux jacks and USB ports, and dedicated cables. Today, streaming-music apps have arrived, and that stems directly from Apple's drive to change the way we use the mobile Web.

The Apple influence even has made its way down to the often forgotten owner's manual. In the 2011 Equus, Hyundai included free iPads loaded with the manual installed as an app--complete with video clips to explain infotainment systems, and bundled with connectivity for owners to schedule service appointments.

On the surface, its influence comes down to changing the way we entertain ourselves in the car. But Apple's also become an American totem--and for a brief moment last week, it was the richest corporation in America.

The technology company's roaring success has led to some fanciful speculation. During GM's bankruptcy, speculators said Apple COO Tim Cook--just named to succeed Jobs as CEO--was a candidate to become the automaker's new chief.

Those reports were proof alone that the allure of Apple's gigantic success had gripped the car world. It still does today, even as Detroit begins a tentative rebound. As recently as last week, GM's chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick named Toyota and Hyundai as competitors--but singled out a mission for his company to "align closer to the world’s true global brands like Apple."

Jobs has inspired companies to do better in design, in sales and in carving out new niches to own. Still it's unlikely any car company could become the walled garden Apple has, since car companies don't have the iron-fisted control over retail sales that Apple maintains. They don't have Apple's cost-effective Chinese manufacturing base, either.

Above all, they don't have Steve Jobs. Jobs, like former BMW, Ford, GM and Chrysler guru Bob Lutz, has a unique grasp on both an engineering vision and on the more elusive customer satisfaction that automakers, even Lexus, can't provide. He's a singular figure in American industrial culture: a retentive design fanatic, with imperial power over almost all pieces of the Apple business, an invested founder, and above all, a brilliant, perceptive leader.

Automakers have come close to the Apple paradigm in the past decade, whether it's with new showrooms, appealing designs, the integration of consumer technology, and even in gaining a foothold in Silicon Valley.

But automakers don't have Jobs' single-minded vision, or his single-handed authority--and that's why his legacy in cars will be almost impossible to move out of the showoom, and into the boardroom.
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