According to MacRumors, way back in 2008, before the iPhone was even a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye, Apple was toying with the idea of building an electric car. But in 2010, the decision was made to focus on smartphones instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ever since, the rumors of an Apple car just wouldn’t go away. Then in 2015, Project Titan was born — an all-out effort from Apple to create a car that would steal some of Tesla’s thunder. The company began an aggressive hiring program designed to lure engineers away from Tesla. That campaign led to some sniping between the heads of both companies, with Elon Musk saying at one point that Apple was where Tesla engineers went to die.
The on again, off again saga of the Apple car continued. It lured Bob Mansfield, one of its top engineers, out of retirement and put him in charge of Project Titan. Then we heard that the whole project has been shut down, with hundreds of engineers let go or re-assigned within the company. Recently, the Apple car was back on the table. It was going to be fully autonomous right from the start and feature ground-breaking new battery technology that would give it greater range at lower cost.
There have been rumors of a partnership with Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Magna, and a host of others. All those companies are torn between wanting Apple’s business and not wanting to be just an assembler for the Cupertino based firm. Hyundai was going to share its new E-GMP EV platform with Apple until it decided to back away from the deal.
According to Korea Times, Apple is “very near” to signing an agreement with LG Magna e-Powertrain. The fact that LG Magna has limited manufacturing capacity suggests Apple may not be planning a mass market car, but rather is targeting the autonomous robotaxi/delivery vehicle market. It is known to be pursuing promising new developments in Lidar technology. Then this year, several of the top engineers in its autonomous driving team quit.
The problem, says MacRumors, is that the company simply cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a car manufacturer, a supplier of advanced self-driving systems, or something else. As Forrest Gump so cogently observed, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you aren’t likely to end up there.” The biggest issue for Apple seems to be its rigid refusal to share any of its technology with others. It wants partners, but only if that partnership is pretty much 90% Apple and 10% others. Several companies have sniffed around the idea of working with Apple to build a car but decided they don’t want to be just a junior partner. Make that a very junior partner.
CATL & BYD Enter The Picture
With that preamble, Reuters is reporting this week that Apple is in early talks with CATL and BYD about supplying batteries for the electric car it may build some day, God willing and the creek don’t rise. The discussions are subject to change and it is not clear if an agreement with either company will be reached, according to four people with knowledge of the situation who have spoken to Reuters.
Here’s the sticking point. Apple has made building manufacturing facilities in the United States a condition for potential battery suppliers, say two of those people. A senior official in the Biden administration confirmed that condition on Tuesday. “My understanding is that Apple is talking about building advanced battery production factories here, here in the U.S.,” Jared Bernstein, a senior White House economic adviser, told Reuters. “That is completely consistent with what the president has talked about in terms of on-shoring supply chains particularly in areas where we might grab global market share.”
Joe Biden may be hot on the idea of building up America’s manufacturing base, but he is also enlisting allies in a push to rein in China’s geopolitical and economic goals. CATL and BYD, of course, are Chinese companies who have their own political issues to contend with. CATL is reluctant to build a US factory due to the strained relations between Washington and Beijing as well as cost concerns, two people have told Reuters. It was not immediately clear if Apple is talking to other battery manufacturers as well.
What is interesting is that Apple on the one hand is crowing about creating new battery technology while on the other hand it is talking to two battery makers who are leading the way on LFP batteries because they use less expensive materials like iron instead of more costly minerals like nickel and cobalt. While LFP batteries have a much lower risk of fire — BYD has famously shown is Blade Battery surviving torture tests like being punctured by a nail, sliced open with an axe, and being heated far beyond its design limits without incident — they are far from the cutting edge technology Apple has promised.
Frankly, Apple is sounding more and more like Fisker, another EV hopeful that promised breakthrough battery technology only to outsource its battery supply to conventional manufacturers. Also like Apple, Fisker is frantically searching for somebody — anybody — to actually build its cars. It reportedly has struck a deal with Foxconn, the same company that makes the iPhone for Apple.
If Elon Musk is famous for popping off on Twitter about anything and everything, Tim Cook is equally famous for running his company inside a hermetically sealed cocoon from which no information is allowed to escape. Is Apple working on an automobile? Yes, definitely. Will it be a mass market car, a robotaxi, or something else? No one knows, least of all Tim Cook, apparently.
MacRumors says Apple has been quietly making inquiries throughout the automobile supply chain and looking into “every detail of car engineering and manufacturing.” But it’s still unclear to those in the industry if Apple is working on a full car, a tech platform, or a mobility service. Whatever it is, it’s not likely to appear for another 5 years or so, making its gestation period nearly two decades long. Will Apple ever actually get off the schneid and build a car? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.
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