Opinion: Unsafe at any speed: Is the new iPad Apple’s Corvair?


The Corvair was General Motors’ answer to new competition from Volkswagen and Porsche back in the day, which was building air-cooled, rear-engine cars with independent rear suspensions. It wasn’t as popular as the iPad is today, but it sold well early on. That is, of course, until Ralph Nader published a report called Unsafe at Any Speedwhich criticized the safety record of the vehicle, eventually forcing GM to kill it. (Sadly, at the end of its run after heavy modification by GM it was actually substantially safer than many contemporaries.) I used to drive one and it actually was a lot of fun, when it wasn’t burning excessive oil.

As I write this, the “new” iPad has been measured at close to 120 degrees in use by Consumer Reports. This is considered burn territory, and it actually exceeds what we now allow in laptop computers. Apple’s response reminds me a lot of GM’s initial response to the Ralph Nader report: The company claims the product is within specs and has wonderful features consumers should love. In short, it isn’t really addressing the concern at all. As it traditionally does, Apple is pretending the problem doesn’t exist.The company has clearly dodged a number of bullets with a variety of problems ranging from battery failures in iPods, to bad antennas on iPhones, iPod Nano defects, and false advertising of Siri, but none of these were dangerous. Although the fire reports on past Apple products remain troubling.

Ralph Nader became a household name taking GM to task, and eventually running for president. Eventually, someone is going to hit a Corvair nerve and do the same to Apple.

The elements of a Corvair moment

I was pretty young when Ralph Nader took on General Motors, but the core thing to remember is that there was really nothing terribly wrong with the Corvair — it was how GM handled the problem that killed the car. Like Apple typically does, or Apple fans do, there is a tendency to attack, often personally, the critic.This created the image of a cover-up,and it was that perceived cover-up that killed the car.

My favorite response to the iPad heat complaint is that the new iPad is operating within spec.This can really backfire in the event someone eventually gets hurt. If it’s determined the iPad is dangerous (which like the Corvair, would only be a matter of public opinion) the issue wouldn’t be a “defect” but an intentionally ignored problem that Apple was aware of. Now, if someone were actually able to demonstrate an instance of an iPad burning someone, say a small child, you’d have the basis for a Corvair moment.

Apple’s process of covering up and obfuscating problems is very similar to the tactics GM used for the Corvair and Ford for the Pinto (which had an unsafe gas tank that was later proven to be as safe as any other car). Both cars were well within design specs, yet both of them were killed by mishandled PR. Apple is playing Russian Roulette if the right problem draws the ire of the right advocate during an election year, like this one.

Is it getting hot in here?

The core of this debate revolves around an Apple heat spec that is likely too high. Most hot tub thermostats top out at 104 degrees. Heat your bathtub to 116 degrees and try to get in it. At this temperature, if you have high heat conductivity (like if you are wet) you’ll likely get burned. And a 4-degree variance takes you to 120 degrees, where you’ll get burned on bare skin regardless of how conductive you are.The right fix is to dial down the heat before some child, (or adult) puts the new iPad on his lap and like this poor guy with a laptop, burns his privates (caution this link will truly gross out most guys).Laptops run a lot cooler now.

At some point, you have to realize people who use products like the iPad aren’t always adults, or often just aren’t the sharpest tacks in the box.The new iPad is too close to being unsafe, and if it becomes the next Corvair or Pinto, the cost to Apple’s brand and valuation would be massive.When it comes to putting kids or privates in danger, I always advocate a conservative path.

If Apple doesn’t want a nasty surprise,it needs to lower the allowed heat of this product before someone influential gets hurt.

If you don’t want a nasty surprise, wear pants when you use your new iPad. 

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.