One of the most talked about companies in the auto industry this past week hasn’t been a carmaker at all, but a tech giant.
Reports from numerous sources are talking about Apple Inc. and its plans to diversify into the automotive space.
But while earlier accounts hinted at a gradual move to cars, new reports suggest that Apple is already on its way to developing an electric vehicle, possibly also compatible with autonomous technologies.
Now, it looks as though the software company wants the car ready for production in as soon as the next five years.
Work Now Underway?
A number of accounts say Apple plans to launch by 2020. Most reports are off the record, however, making it difficult to distinguish industry secrets from false conjecture.
According to Bloomberg News, one such report this week said about 200 Apple employees are working on technology such as robotics and batteries for the project. Other stories pairing Apple with auto tech include a new lawsuit claiming that Apple has been poaching engineers from battery manufacturers. In Hawaii, photos of vans registered to Apple – such as were previously seen in San Francisco – have been seen driving around with mysterious camera rigs mounted to the roof. Is this autonomous tech being discretely worked upon?
Funding is certainly available for research and development of such a large project: Apple reported last quarter that it has $178 billion in cash, and it appears that CEO Tim Cook is looking for ways to redirect the money instead of returning it to shareholders.
“Apple would have some advantages as a new entrant to the auto industry,” wrote Ben Reitzes and Brian Johnson ‒ two analysts with Barclays ‒ in a letter to investors. Among the perks is the potential to connect multiple devices, such as tablets and phones, to the vehicle.
“Finally, Apple’s brand – arguably the most important advantage – is a big attraction for the next generation of car customers.”
But if Apple is working on an EV, the endeavor will come with its share of hazards, said Jeff Green, the Detroit Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News.
“There are a lot of risks to this. I mean, the amount of time that Apple is going to take to bring a car is really short,” said Green.
“And Toyota and Honda and other automakers have gotten in trouble when they started to shorten their development times and had to lengthen them out a little bit. That’s where some of these recalls we’ve been dealing with in the last few years came from when they got a little sloppy and took too little time to work out the kinks.
“So there’s always risk when you’re making a car. It’s not likely your iPhone’s going to kill you. But cars, you know, are a lot more dangerous.”
Apple vs Tesla, or Apple + Tesla?
When talking about Apple and its auto project, one name frequently surfaces: Tesla.
Analysts are split on whether the companies will become EV competitors, or if the two will merge.
Jason Calacanis, investor and entrepreneur, said he thinks a partnership will form in the next 18 months, projecting that Apple will buy Tesla for $75 billion. But Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, thinks it’s more likely that the two will stay separate.
“If Apple was going to make a car, it would be 10 times easier to just buy Tesla. But Apple doesn’t want a single branded experience, it wants Apple in many, many cars,” said Bajarin, listing an iPhone-like dashboard as a more probable venture for the tech company.
Interestingly, in a recent webcast to discuss Tesla’s 2014 financial report, Tesla CEO Elon Musk named Apple as benchmark for success. He projected that by 2025, Tesla will be worth $700 billion.
“Our market cap would be basically the same as Apple’s is today,” said Musk.
Amongst this flurry of reports and rumors, Apple has remained silent on its intentions. Though it seems highly likely that the company is preparing to cross into the auto market, Apple’s actual course is still a mystery … for now.