Phones Morphing into Cars?

Lowly Worm in an Apple Car of old. Will the future bring a phone morphing into a car?
Apple Car w/ Lowly Worm (Richard Scarry illustrator)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Are phones becoming cars or vice versa? My friend took me out for a ride in his new car and whipped out a phone when he wanted to unlock the doors and move it  forward a few feet. Then I read in the news this week that Apple, the company that makes my phone, says they plan to make a car. I don’t see a car company, like Ford or GM, hinting that they want to build phones. Please explain this topsy turvy! Bill, Fairfax.

Dear Bill: It’s a great questIion to begin the New Year. In an early DearSmartphone column (now archived) I note that Gen X and Gen Z car buyers seem more intent on how the vehicle will synch with phones and less interested to look under the hood or kick tires.

But, I don’t think it’s the prowess and performance of ApplePlay that makes people, like you, think that an Apple car might be roadworthy. I believe it is an issue of integrity and trust.

The Bread Crumb Trail:

Future vehicles will leave a bread-crumb trail wherever and whenever they travel ….from entering the roadway, logging miles, and an ever-present chatter with sensors and satellites. Think of it like being in an airplane that is never completely outside the range of the control tower.

So, future revenue may come less from selling cars and more in renting out this “car data.” Imagine that you are motoring near a big box store (assuming they still exist) and you are prompted with a flash-sale, if you’ll just alter your route and get there soon. Or, you have entered the coordinates to travel to a new destination, and the dashboard offers hotel and dining recommendations. More insidious is the dashboard recording how often you stopped for booze, even though you are technically underage.

People are worried about data privacy, about their interests and habits being bought and sold. Technically, this is happening today. Black boxes installed in cars collect data on the speed you are driving, whether you stop at signals and stop signs, and how heavy you are on the brakes. Insurance companies promise to reward good drivers and help teens but what else can they do with this information? Meanwhile, GPS routing, over our phones provides a very complete picture of where we have been. Ironically, one of the first legal cases about these privacy rights occurred when law enforcement officials attaching a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle.

In Apple We Trust?

So, a pivotal reason that people think Apple may make a better car might have less to do with engineering and more to do with the trust and integrity that people place in the Apple brand name. According to a 2019 presentation by CEO Tim Cook, Apple was differentiating itself from other Silicon Valley providers by valuing privacy and keeping more data local to the device. Today, in 2021, Apple is defending its policy of locked phones and secure passwords in a suit that could wend its way to the Supreme Court .

That said, there are also technological reasons to anticipate that Apple may be up to something ‘moving’.  It’s said that Steve Jobs considered building a car in 2008 and Apple has been making strategic hires in technology since 2014 .  Strategically, Apple is rumored to use a different battery chemistry, not the one favored by car-manufacturer Tesla in the U.S. A LFP, lithium iron phosphate battery is said to be less volatile, less likely to overheat, and its ‘monocell’ design would free up space inside the battery pack. This could reduce the cost of an Apple powered vehicle and give it more range.

Power Rangers:

Neither Apple nor it Silicon Valley rival, Google, have a natural advantage with tires and chassis. However, they do have a head-start with batteries, and batteries will power future vehicles. The people’s car might actually begin with the people’s smartphone. That said, it should be noted that Google/Waymo has been testing self-driving cars since 2009 and has logged more self-driving miles than any other company.

But, summing up, the Apple Car has always been first and foremost in my own household. Ever since my children read the book and crooned at the cartoon pictures by children’s author Richard Scarry (see image cartoon) they have been rooting for Lowly Worm in his Apple Car.

Booking Trips for Parents?

Breaking news! Aug. 20: An appeals court has allowed ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft to continue treating their drivers in CA as independent contractors while an appeal works its way through the court.

This is a California registered Prius sporting a lot of stickers supporting AB5 for Uber and Lyft drivers.
Fewer ridesource cars… more stickers!
photo credit: Pymnts.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:   A few months ago, your column mentioned booking trips for parents with the smartphone app and that has been a lifesaver. My Dad lives out-of-town and needs to get to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. He likes the independence this gives him even though he has a flip-phone. But, I notice that there are fewer Uber and Lyft vehicles on the road now because of the pandemic. Do you think I should hire a personal driver? Honestly, this could not come at a worse time for us. J.S., San Francisco

Dear J.S.: So true-  you can book a ride for your Dad, and give him wheels when he doesn’t have keys. But, as you note, because of the pandemic there are fewer drivers on the road and economic activity has dialed down. Surely Dad will wait longer to get a ride. But, before you wait your turn on Uber or Lyft, perhaps there is a non-profit that will help? A friend of mine runs a charity that provides free medical transportation for cancer patients in Massachusetts.

If this charity was here in California, there could be problems beyond the economic slowdown and fewer ridesource drivers.  Beginning August 20, the ridesource (aka, ridehail) services might shut down because of the state’s AB5 law.  The law specifies that Uber and Lyft must classify their drivers as employees, and provide benefits like a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and more.  Uber and Lyft have fought the ruling and say that more than 80 percent of their drivers are part-time and work less than less than 40 hours a week.

Finding Alternatives:

But, back to Dad. You should prepare well in advance of his appointment and contact the medical office. They often work with transport providers and Medicaid. Ironically, those contracts may be with UberHealth and Lyft, like the charity I mentioned.  Medical facilities should be able to offer links to community resources, to social workers, and local councils on aging. Just be persistent!

But, if it’s affordable, maybe you should indeed contract with a  driver looking for outside gigs. Medical vans do not tend to be as convenient as Uber or Lyft, and the scheduling needs to be done hours, if not days in advance. Riders say they feel a loss of control and freedom.

Voting Your CHoice:

But, you and your Dad get a chance to weigh in, assuming you are registered to vote in California. On the November ballot Proposition 22 creates a hybrid category for rideshare drivers that will keep employee benefits lower. Meanwhile, Harry Campbell, a ridesource industry insider, has given a nod to an insurance company called ‘Kover’ which already provides health insurance and layoff insurance for drivers. Campbell’s own quote, based on his revenue, was $61.00 a month.

The “time-out” for Uber or Lyft, if it occurs, will not last forever. Campbell reports that their business quickly restores once they come back into the market. What I worry is that people like your Dad who depend on ridesource will be the most impacted. Not only do they need a trip to the doctor, but well-being also depends on having local, connected travel. Sometimes the trip to the doctor is essential, but so is the visit to get an ice-cream cone. 

How to Find A Local Business

“Looking for out-of-town information….coming up short”

two logos on a page: the yellow pages 'let your fingers do the walking' and now siri, 'let siri do the talking'.
How we search for a business has changed

Dear Ms Smartphone: How should I find a local business?  My family wanted to take a rafting trip together so I went online. Most of the places are about 60 miles from my home.  I searched on Google and picked the one with a good web site and nice pictures of the river. When we got there, I discovered there were other rafting places nearby that were open and had better boats. Unfortunately, they did not come up in my search or at least I don’t remember that they did. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I preferred it when we searched the Yellow Pages. Bernice, S. San Francisco

Dear Bernice:

Do you remember the slogan, “Let your fingers do the walking (through the yellow pages?” Well, today it’s “Let Siri do the talking”! 

Your question is interesting, because indeed, how we search for information and how we discover things in the community have changed so much. As of 2011, nearly 70 % of Americans rarely or never used printed phone directories (the yellow pages), and since then most have gone digital. Even if you liked to use the yellow pages keep in mind that you needed a local directory to search a business even 60 miles away.

Not So Local!

Several years ago there was a scam in digital searches. Say you were looking online for a towing service or locksmith. The address would not pop up and people naively thought they were reaching a local business. Instead, the online connection was to shills far away. Sometimes these nefarious characters took credit card information online and never showed up, or, subbed out the work. 

Since then, search engines like Google, Bing and others have cleaned up their protocols and make it more evident when you do a local search that you are reaching a local business. In terms of your specific search for rafting trips, a couple of things might have gone missing. 

Keywords (and Key Phrases)

First, the businesses that display top-most in the search, like the one you selected, could have bought an ad placement. Here’s how it works:  The business owner bids on keywords and pays a fee to display their name at the top of the list if someone searches choice terms like ‘raft’ or ‘water adventure’ or ‘canoe.’ There’s a tiny icon that says ‘ad’ when the listing displays on your screen, but it certainly easy to overlook it if you are in a hurry.

That said, local businesses do not have to pay to have their listing posted on Google. The listing is free and Google gives them a free web page and map links.  But, without the keywords, the listing may display further down the search page. 

It takes a little bit of digital savvy for a business owner to understand how to get listed and show up on the map. In your case, the other rafting companies may have ignored this, or simply didn’t care. In this link you will find a funny, perhaps sad, discussion between Google business and a locksmith– the locksmith said he just wanted to fix things, he did not know, or care to learn, about posting things on a computer. 

Searching is a 2-way street

The onus to search is a two-way street. To get the full listings you want for a far-away community, the geographic location needed to be specified. Sometimes we turn off the GPS on our devices,  and forget to include the place-name in our searches. We all tend to stop searching after the first few listings display, but the first ones-up are the paid-for-ads.  Other local businesses (e.g. the other rafting businesses) may be several pages deep and require more effort to find.


I would like to think that younger people (the Digital Natives) dig deeper in their search requests and do not stop at the first results. But, maybe not. Do you recall how many businesses in the days of  Yellow Pages called themselves “AAAAAlocksmith, AAAAplumber and AAAArafting? When it comes to finding things, both then and now, a little knowledge helps float the boat.