Apple Watch: Out of Sync?

John C. Abell, Senior Editor at LinkedIn, recently published a blog post in which he suggested that society has nothing to fear from intelligent robots, a veiled reference to recent statements from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking about the future potential of artificial intelligence. Rather than robots or AI, Abell wrote: “Batteries will be the death of us.”

flip phoneWhile this brings a gentle chuckle, there’s plenty of truth in it.

Abell described how the first generation of cell phones (“feature phones”) sported replaceable batteries that lasted for days and could be swapped out at a moment’s notice. In other words, battery life wasn’t a concern. These devices, which had a core function of delivering voice calls to their owners, did so with efficiency and long periods between charges.

Core Functionality

This core functionality, however, was replaced when smartphones supplanted feature phones and scrolling through Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and—most significantly—perpetual texting became all the rage. The purpose of the silicon wonders in our pockets shifted dramatically. Yes, at their essence, they remained communications devices. But the functionality of a “phone” changed completely. And with it, battery life became a major concern, almost overnight.

Likewise, the functionality of watches is about to morph dramatically. Wrist-adorning devices that once delivered simply the time and date (and maybe a stopwatch or countdown feature, but still mostly only time-related features) are growing into small computers with elaborate sensors that offer continual connectivity to our other devices, like smartphones and tablets.

Practicality is paramount. I’m currently engaged in a book project involving the electric car market, and Abell made the perfect analogy between modern mobile devices and electric cars: Range anxiety. Back when we had mere feature phones with great battery life, fear of the device running out of juice rarely reared its ugly head. Ample power for our phones—or the lack of said electricity—was a non-issue.

apple watch clock faceIn this respect, the forthcoming Apple Watch may be two steps forward and one step back.

Pre-release reviews are beginning to indicate that only conservative use of the Apple Watch will deliver a full day on a single charge. Granted, despite the name, the Apple Watch is much more than a mere watch. Ironically, those who want to use it as a simple, but elegant and connected timepiece will be SOL. It will deliver very few hours of straight-up clock face display, depriving wearers the ability to simply glance at their wrist and see a ticking second hand.

According to 9to5 Mac, “We’re told that the Watch should be able to display its clock face for approximately three hours, including watch ticking animations, if nothing else is done with the device.” This reminds me of the primitive, yet disruptive, Texas Instruments watches that my father and grandfather began wearing and loved in the mid-1970s, almost exactly forty years ago.

The History

These first-gen digital timepieces featured bright red LED displays that required the wearer to press a button to briefly display the time—unlike their more advanced progeny, which featured continuous LCD readouts requiring no manual intervention to simply view the hour (that’s when Japanese Casio stole the crown from American Texas Instruments).

I recall my 6th grade math teacher, Mr. Musgrave, wearing one of the slightly inconvenient, but very popular, Texas Instruments LED models. My memory of this is distinct, simply because it was readily apparent whenever he took his right hand and pressed the display button on his left wrist to tell him how much time was left in the class period.

TI red digital watchI can imagine proud new Apple Watch owners nervous to show it off, afraid it will die before the end of the business day. The Apple Watch may be like a Nissan LEAF battery electric car restricted to traveling only 80 miles on a charge. Oh-so-nice and delightfully leading edge during that 80 miles, but then you have to plug it in and wait for your next playdate.

Great Gadget; Good Timepiece?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m an Apple fan and in love with (the idea of) the Apple Watch. But already we know that those acclimated to obtaining the time by simply looking down at their wrist will be in for a surprise—and recharging their watch every three hours if they do so.

As cited by Abell, 9to5 Mac also reported that the highly-anticipated Apple Watch will deliver “roughly 19 hours of mixed usage each day, but that the company may not hit that number in the first generation version.” “Mixed use” means that the watch display is mostly off and that it’s sucking only a small trickle of juice from the battery so it can receive notifications from the wearer’s iPhone or iPad.

It’s becoming clear that the Apple Watch, at least in its first iteration, will work well only within particular use case parameters, sometimes limiting its practicality. No continually displayed time. No hours of full-bore app use. No playing Angry Birds: Watch Edition on the trip to Grandma’s house on Sunday.

apple watchIt’s beginning to sound as if this miraculous little device, which in so many respects will be uber-cool, will also be hobbled by today’s relatively primitive battery tech. It’s sad that such a great gadget will be limited by a battery that hasn’t quite evolved to meet the needs of wearables that are extremely small, yet sport bright, high-resolution displays, relatively powerful processors, and juice-draining wireless connectivity.

Slowly Getting There

The energy density of batteries, for both cars and small mobile devices, is increasing rapidly. While I’m convinced that this first-gen Apple Watch will change the industry and perform miraculous feats of silicon syncing, it simply won’t suit all use cases or please all customers.

Remember the Oscar-winning 1967 film The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman? Remember the infamous post-college poolside investment advice from the family friend during the graduation party at the beginning of the movie?

“I just wanna say one word to you. Just one word.”

“Batteries.”

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:home theater book cover for blog footers

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Advertisements

Chevy Bolt Concept EV: Meh?

On January 12, General Motors CEO Mary Barra introduced the Chevy Bolt concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Media outlets far and wide hailed the poorly named Bolt electric vehicle (EV) as a strong future competitor to Tesla’s forthcoming Model 3. Unlike Chevy’s existing token electric car, the hybrid Volt (which features a small three-cylinder internal combustion engine), the Bolt (with a “B”) is an all-electric, pure EV.

What They’re Saying

CNET’s Wayne Cunningham wrote, “Chevrolet looks to beat Tesla to the punch, unveiling its Bolt concept, a hatchback using lightweight body materials and a pure electric drivetrain.” One cocky blogger, Anton Wahlman at Seeking Alpha, went so far as to headline his post “GM’s 200-Mile Electric Car for $30,000: RIP Tesla.”

chevy bolt 1Given GM’s poor track record for quality—plus its 2009 bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout—“RIP Tesla” smells a bit like clickbait. How quickly we forget that GM last year announced “six recalls covering 8.4 million vehicles globally” and reported “seven crashes, eight injuries, and three fatalities linked to the recalled vehicles,” [emphasis mine] according to a June 2014 article from Edmunds.com.

The most significant attributes of Chevy’s new electric Bolt are its predicted price and driving range. At just shy of $40,000 and with a between-charges driving distance of 200 miles, GM is squarely aiming the Bolt at the masses (i.e. Nissan’s LEAF and Tesla’s future Model 3). It is also addressing the most prevalent consumer fear about EVs: Range anxiety.

Hold the Press

However, GM is fudging the numbers a bit, and lazy journalists are going for it hook, line, and sinker. The Los Angeles Times and Car and Driver were two of the only publications to point out that Chevy’s target price of $30,000 is after a federal tax incentive (the current $7,500 federal tax credit might not even exist in 2017). It can be assumed that the Bolt will feature a price more like $38,000.

chevy bolt 2

This isn’t trivial, because the tax credit applies only if you owe taxes and simply discounts what you owe; if you owe nothing, you realize no financial gain (it’s not a rebate). [You can learn more here.]

Following statements from Tesla CEO Elon Musk, this would make the Bolt more expensive than the future Tesla Model 3, which Musk said will be $35,000 before tax incentives (making it only $27,500 if the incentives still exist in 2017). Let’s not forget that it was the Chevy Volt’s (with a “V”) original $41,000 price tag that, in the words of SFGate.com’s Tom Krisher, “…hamstrung sales, even with a $7,500 federal tax credit.” It’s fair to say that $38,000 would position the Bolt as more expensive than the Nissan LEAF and Model 3, which will likely be the most direct competitors.

Like popular electric cars currently on the market, the Bolt will feature a lithium-ion battery and plug into any common 120 or 240-volt wall outlet to charge. However, it will also sport advanced features not found on current affordable EV models, like carbon fiber and aluminum throughout, a 10-inch touchscreen, and even the ability to self-park—if these features make it into the production vehicle.

General Motors is committing not only to the Bolt, but also to the science of electric cars overall. In the past months, Detroit’s number two global automaker announced an investment of $65 million in lithium-ion battery research and production (which, while impressive, pales in comparison to Tesla’s $5 billion “Gigafactory” investment).

Like the Model S

Being a concept, there’s plenty that’s not known about the Bolt—and that will change significantly between now and when the concept goes into production in late 2016 (as a 2017 model). GM claims the ground-breaking vehicle will support DC fast charging, but hasn’t made any claims about charge time. Chevy also hinted that the vehicle will offer adaptive suspension, allowing the car to adjust its ride for different road conditions and, in theory, extend its driving range (an optional feature found on significantly more costly competitors, like the Tesla Model S).

chevy bolt 3Like the Bolt, the Model 3 is also slated to offer a driving range of 200+ miles. However, given that Tesla is investing billions into its own high-tech battery factory outside Reno (the Gigafactory), it wouldn’t be surprising if the Silicon Valley darling is able to beat GM in this particular department (Chevy is sourcing its batteries from South Korea’s LG Chem).

General Motors is trying to crack the EV mold by offering an affordable model that will provide a decent driving range and advanced technical features. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said, “The affordable-yet-functional electric car has yet to materialize, remaining an automotive unicorn.”

Questionable Styling

While larger than it appears in most press photos, the styling of the Bolt four-door hatchback is decidedly practical, yet modern. My first response was that it appears to be a Toyota Yaris on steroids. Road & Track said that the concept’s styling “is definitely evocative of the [BMW] i3—which is to say, a refrigerator on wheels…”

chevy bolt 4While I’m somewhat disappointed by the Bolt concept’s design—which reminds me of a large-scale econobox or slimmed down crossover SUV—it’s not ugly. In fact, the more photos I see of it, the more it’s growing on me. The Bolt’s blunt nose, which makes Chrysler’s old “cab forward” design almost Jimmy Durante-esque in appearance, screams to the world, “I have no internal combustion engine under my hood!”

It’s fair to say that the current seating for four may expand to five and that the concept’s panoramic glass roof will disappear. Auto manufacturers love to goose up concept vehicles with large wheels and glass tops in an effort to make them appear roomier than they actually are. In fact, the chief reason concept cars typically sport only two rear seats is so they won’t appear cramped when filled with auto journalists during photo shoots.

Competitive in 2017?

If the Bolt was available today, it would be extremely competitive. Nissan’s LEAF (the most popular electric car ever) and the Fiat 500e both offer a driving range of 75-85 miles per charge, less than half what Chevy is boasting the Bolt will deliver. However, rumors of an updated LEAF predict a driving range that will be more than double the current model (this is how fast EV tech is evolving).

Given the competitive spirit of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “ghone,” like phone) and the fact that Chevy’s announcement is nearly two years in advance of the Bolt’s availability, it wouldn’t be shocking if Nissan actually bested the Bolt’s driving range. And, in fact, it will. Ghosn told reporters on January 13, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, that Nissan will update the LEAF to an equal 200 mile range a full year before GM’s bolt even comes to market. In fact, Ghosn told reporters in Detroit that the LEAF “may have even more range.”

chevy bolt 5Ghosn, known for his confident persona and management style, added, “We are the leaders and we frankly intend to continue to be the leaders. Generations of EVs coming are going to get better, less costly, lighter, [and] more autonomous.” According to Inside EVs, “Nissan’s answer to the recently unveiled Chevrolet Bolt is under development right now and is up to a year ahead of the Bolt’s expected production launch. Furthermore, Nissan’s answer will almost certainly be cheaper and seat five.” The popular electric vehicle blogging site estimated that the LEAF could arrive with a price of only $30,000, undercutting the Bolt’s true price by at least $8,000.

If the Tesla Model 3 can also exceed the driving range of the Bolt (Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk isn’t exactly known for lazily resting on his laurels), that’s two major competitors—one of which may undercut the Bolt’s price by nearly $10,000—that will embarrass Chevy in terms of the two major talking points of its big reveal in Detroit: Driving range and price.

I’m conflicted when it comes to the Bolt. Part of me loves it. Each new fully electric vehicle on the road means one fewer gas-guzzler and that much less CO2 being pumped into the air. But another part of me (the consumer advocate tech writer) realizes that this is, after all, General Motors.

Given the General’s inferior track record during the past few years, how many of the Bolt concept’s slick features, like self-parking, adaptive suspension, and carbon fiber body panels, will actually see the light of day in a production version? And, if they do, how likely is Chevy to be able to reach a sub-$40K price to compete with Nissan and Tesla?

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins

[For a different perspective on the Bolt, check out my colleague Nicolas Zart’s rundown over at CarNewsCafe.com or Aaron Turpen’s review at FutureCars.com.]


P.S.: In all fairness, some auto journalists love the Bolt’s styling. Wrote Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield at Transport Evolved, “The Chevy Bolt looks great too—a little like the illegitimate love-child between a BMW i3, a Chevy Spark, and perhaps a Renault Scenic MPV.”

Also, The Detroit News has reported, the day after GM’s official announcement, that company executives said they could change the Bolt name prior to the release of the new EV. According to the paper, “GM North American President Alan Batey said the company needs to communicate the name. ‘Bolt is the brother of the Volt—a bolt of lightning. It’s all to do with electricity,’ he said in an interview. ‘We’re going to have a lot of time to communicate this and bring it to life. It’s a concept, so we’re just playing with the name right now and our job is not to confuse people.'”


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.